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HCV Is Diagnosed late in UK: found with severe liver disease upon diagnosis
  Fears over hepatitis C awareness
BBC News
Friday, 15 December 2006
Thousands of people are still being diagnosed with the severe liver disease hepatitis C in England despite a major awareness campaign, figures show.
Data from the Health Protection Agency shows the number newly diagnosed in 2005 was 7,580, down 400 from 2004.
Hepatitis C, which is contracted through infected blood, can cause cirrhosis, liver failure or cancer.
There is concern the 4,855 people now living with cirrhosis or serious liver failure in 2005 could double by 2015.
"We're simply not diagnosing people fast enough"
Charles Gore, Hepatitis C Trust
Most people who contract the disease do so by sharing needles when injecting drugs.
But others could have become infected through a blood transfusion, if they received one before screening was introduced in 1991 - or through sharing banknotes or straws to snort cocaine.
Studies have shown that this can put people at risk.
Testing for the disease has increased, with GPs carrying out 60% more tests last year than in 2002.
But many people do not realise they have the virus as it can take years or even decades for symptoms to appear.
The latest estimates on the number of adults infected with hepatitis C suggested there were around 231,000 in 2003.
However early treatment is usually effective at clearing it up.
'At risk'
Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis C expert from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said: "Hepatitis C is very under-diagnosed simply because people are unaware that they are carrying it.
"By increasing awareness of the infection, more people will be tested, will receive earlier and more effective treatment, and they can avoid passing it on to others."
She added: "We estimate that almost six in 10 people with hepatitis C injected drugs at some point in their past.
"If someone has ever shared equipment for injecting drugs - even if it was a long time ago, and even if they only did it once or twice - they could be at risk from hepatitis C.
"A simple blood test can establish whether someone has ever been infected with the virus."
Professor Pete Borriello, director of the HPA's Centre for Infections said: "Testing for hepatitis C has increased significantly, however there is still much work to be done as a significant number of individuals remain undiagnosed.
"If you don't know you've got it, you can't do anything about it. Health services should consider this as they formulate strategies to increase testing."
Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust said: "It is really concerning that the 2005 figure actually shows a fall on the 2004 number of diagnoses.
"I am going to be writing to the Chief Medical Officer, asking him to re-evaluate the public awareness campaign, because it doesn't seem to be giving the desired result to get more people coming forward for testing.
"We're simply not diagnosing people fast enough. That leaves people at risk of both spreading the people to other people and of developing severe liver disease."
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