England & Wales Health and social care

Viewpoint: Public health cuts are threatening Hepatitis C elimination

Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, discusses why cuts to local authority funding could be devastating for the fight to eradicate the hepatitis C in this country.

This Sunday 28th July will be World Hepatitis Day and this year we are celebrating just how far the UK has come in the fight against hepatitis C, to now be actively working towards eliminating this virus by 2030 at the latest is extremely exciting. However, to achieve elimination, we need a joined-up approach which includes not only the NHS but also drug treatment services and the local authorities that commission them.

At least 113,000 people in England are infected with hepatitis C which can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver failure. The virus is transmitted through blood to blood contact and is commonly passed on through sharing paraphernalia for injecting drugs.

Up to 70% of those infected are undiagnosed and have no idea they carry the virus because the symptoms people experience, if any, are often non-specific and can be diagnosed as other illnesses. As such, those who have been infected can live for decades without symptoms until encountering serious and life-threatening complications.

NHS England has recently launched a ground-breaking initiative to eliminate hepatitis C. This “elimination deal” will not only save lives, but reduce long-term pressure on the NHS through reducing the number of people with serious liver damage needing care.

How do drug treatment services and local authorities fit in with this push to eliminate hepatitis C?

First, as a charity which raises awareness, tests people at risk, and then supports them into treatment, we rely on partnerships with drug treatment services in the community as a means of engaging with people who inject drugs. These are the services that see these people day in, day out and have relationships with those who are at risk of hepatitis C infection. They therefore play a vital role in helping us find the people who need our support. The stigma these people can face from medical practitioners and the difficulty they find in accessing mainstream medical services makes this outreach role vital.

Second, substance misuse services also play a massive role in preventing new infections. We know that harm reduction strategies such as opioid substitution therapy and needle and syringe provision have a considerable impact in reducing hepatitis C transmission, particularly when used together.

After years of cuts, budgets for drug treatment services are falling so low a growing number of councils have failed to attract any bids from service providers.

Without these services, not only is there a risk we will be unable to reach the people who we need to treat to eliminate hepatitis C, but the amount of people we will need to treat will also increase due to new infections.

This makes cuts to these services, and by extension local authorities funding, a false economy. Short-term savings found through cuts merely raise the human and economic cost of hepatitis C in the long-run.

Without well-funded drug treatment services, eliminating hepatitis C as a public health concern, potentially one of the biggest achievements of the NHS in 21st century, will be impossible.

For more information go to hepctrust.org.uk