Deaths from hepatitis C cases drop to lowest level in 10 years

Posted on: 30th January 2024

The British Liver Trust welcomed today’s news from the UKHSA that the UK has achieved a remarkable milestone in the fight against hepatitis C. The latest data published by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) reveals that deaths from the hepatitis C virus are at the lowest level in 10 years. With thanks to effective testing and treatment, deaths from hepatitis C has fallen from to 0.69 per 100,000 people in 2015 to 0.44 deaths per 100,000 people in 2022.

The number of people in England living with chronic hepatitis C (HCV) infection has also reduced by 51.6%. The Hepatitis C in England report has found that the number of people aged over 16 in England living with chronic HCV has declined from an estimated 129,400 in 2015 to 62,600 in 2022.

This achievement is largely due to increased testing and improved access to treatment. Substantial developments in public health initiatives have been made to increase the numbers of individuals being tested for hepatitis C, including through NHS England’s opt-out bloodborne virus testing programme in Emergency Departments and an increase in people accessing antivirals. Since these very effective drugs became available in 2015, NHS England data indicate that 77,862 people have benefitted from treatment.

Hepatitis C is one of the infections being tested for as part of the NHSE Opt Out blood borne virus testing programme in Emergency Departments. Data from NHS England show that in the first year of the programme, 499 people with HCV were diagnosed through this scheme.

Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Communications and Policy at the British Liver Trust said:

“We are delighted to see the progress that has been made towards hepatitis C elimination in England.  However, hepatitis C often has no symptoms in the early stages and it is vital that we keep on encouraging early detection and treatment. If you have ever been at risk – for example if you had a blood transfusion before the early 1990s, have had medical treatment or a tattoo abroad or have ever taken drugs it’s important that you get tested."

HCV is a bloodborne virus that can cause life-threatening liver disease and cancer. However, those infected often have no symptoms until many years later when their liver has been badly damaged. When symptoms do occur, they can often be vague, such as tiredness or loss of appetite, and be dismissed or mistaken for other conditions. Early detection and treatment can also reduce the risk of passing the virus onto others.

The virus is spread through blood-to-blood contact, most commonly in the UK by sharing needles, syringes or other non-sterile injecting equipment. Based on modelled estimates, 84.6% of the 62,600 people who were estimated to be living with HCV in 2022 had either currently, or previously injected drugs. There are an estimated 9,600 people with chronic HCV infection who have never injected drugs.

In order to help find the remaining cases, in May 2023, NHS England launched a website where people can order at-home self-testing kits. Find out more about the home test kits.

Dr Monica Desai, Hepatitis C lead at UKHSA, said:

“Hepatitis C elimination is in reach if we can accelerate testing, support people to access effective treatment, reduce the stigma experienced by people living with hepatitis C and prevent people getting the infection in the first place - particularly for people who inject drugs.

The symptoms of hepatitis C can go unnoticed for years. But the sooner you are diagnosed, the quicker you can get access to effective treatments and prevent serious liver damage. So, if you have ever injected drugs, even if it was a long time ago, please get tested. The test is quick and free and can be ordered via an online portal if you would prefer that rather than visiting your GP. You should also get tested if you have ever had medical treatment abroad, or had condomless sex with someone who may have hepatitis C.”

Minister for Women’s Health Strategy, Maria Caulfield said:

“The decline in people living with hepatitis C is testament to the brilliant work of the NHS and UKHSA. We want to go even further and I urge people most at risk, like those who have injected drugs, to get tested so that if they do need treatment they can get it as soon as possible. By increasing testing and giving people access to effective treatment, we will continue to protect the public’s health.”

John Stewart, National Director for Specialised Commissioning at NHS England said:

"The NHS is leading the world in the drive to eliminate hepatitis C through pioneering programmes like our testing portal, opt-out testing in Emergency Departments and community outreach to those most at risk, as well as landmark commercial deals securing access to the latest treatments. This data proves that our ambitions are within reach, as we work to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat ahead of the 2030 WHO commitment.”