Hepatitis C big part of liver disease rise

THE number of people dying from liver disease and liver cancer in the East of England has increased by 70% in just 11 years, new figures have revealed.

The figure in the region has risen from 486 in 1997 to 831 in 2008, while the total for England has jumped from 6,058 to 9,719 in the same period.

MPs have warned that hepatitis C is a key contributing factor to the nationwide rise, and also claim patient services in some hospitals are poor.

Liver disease is the fifth biggest killer after heart disease, cancer, stroke and lung disorders, and the number of deaths is rising by about 8% per year.

The report, from the All-Party Parliamentary Hepatology Group (APPHG), said hepatitis C’s exact contribution to rising mortality was difficult to calculate but was certainly “underestimated” because so few people are diagnosed.

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Many of the 250,000 to 466,000 people living with hepatitis C in the UK currently have no idea they have the disease because it can remain symptomless for many years.

Famous sufferers include the late Dame Anita Roddick, the Body Shop founder who caught the virus from a blood transfusion she received during the birth of her daughter; actress Pamela Anderson, guitarist Keith Richards and singers Marianne Faithfull and Natalie Cole.

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Anyone given a blood transfusion before September 1991 or blood products before 1986 could be at risk of infection, and a major route of transmission is people sharing needles for injecting drugs.

Less common ways of passing on the virus include from mother to child before or during birth, unprotected sex and having medical and dental treatment abroad.

People having tattoos, ear or body piercing, acupuncture, electrolysis and semi-permanent make-up are also at risk if unsterile equipment is used. Sharing razors or toothbrushes also carries a small risk.

The report condemned the wide variation in the quality of patient services in NHS hospitals.

Around 13,000 people are newly-infected every year but only about a third receive treatment which has been shown to cure half of cases, it said.

And success rates with treatment varies widely between hospitals, from just 10% of patients treated to 100%.

Furthermore, the UK’s use of hepatitis C drugs is the second lowest out of 14 comparable countries.

The report, In The Dark, pointed to a “worrying shortage of basic monitoring in hepatitis C services, such as numbers of patients referred, numbers offered treatment, numbers initiating treatment and treatment results”.

This has a negative impact on local and national planning of services while some hospitals refuse to treat drug-users, contrary to national guidance.

Tory MP David Amess, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Hepatology Group, said: “There is effective treatment available for hepatitis C so there is absolutely no excuse for the death toll to continue rising.

“The staggering increase in deaths from liver disease and liver cancer show just how vital it is that the national liver strategy is developed as a matter of urgency.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “The NHS has increased spending on Nice-recommended drugs for hepatitis C from about �17million in 2004 to about �37m in 2008.

“The National Clinical Director for Liver Disease is currently reviewing options on how best to address these issues and is looking at how we can help to identify people earlier, encourage them to change their behaviour and ensure the right services are available.”

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