Hepatitis C prevalence falls by 45% in England

Posted on: 31st July 2023

The latest data published by UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows that there were an estimated 70,649 people living in England with hepatitis C in 2022. This is 45% lower than the number of people in 2015, thanks to improved access to antivirals that cure the infection.

NHS England has treated more than 80,000 people since 2015 as part of its national elimination programme, meaning more people have now been treated and cured of the virus than are left to treat. Of those treated, more than 80% are from the most deprived areas in England, highlighting the role of eliminating hepatitis C as a key driver of reducing health inequalities.

Eliminating hepatitis C and hepatitis B is a key priority for both UKHSA and NHS England, in order to reduce the impact of infectious disease in this country and to meet the World Health Organization’s elimination target by 2030. UKHSA’s strategy, including this hepatitis C target, was launched this week, setting out the organisation’s mission to prepare for, prevent and respond to health threats, save lives, and protect livelihoods.

Vanessa Hebditch, Director of Communications and Policy at the 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 do not lose momentum. 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. If you’re worried, free and confidential tests from the NHS are now available online and you can find out more on our website."

Hepatitis C virus is a bloodborne virus that can cause life-threatening liver disease, including cancer. However, those infected often have no symptoms until many years later when their liver has been badly damaged. The virus is spread through blood-to-blood contact, most commonly in the UK by sharing needles contaminated with the virus – but even sharing razors or toothbrushes with someone with the infection could pass it on. People born in countries with higher prevalence of hepatitis C, such as in Eastern Europe and South Asia, or those who have had medical treatments abroad are also at increased risk.

While there has been huge progress over recent years in the diagnosis and treatment of hepatitis, challenges remain. While effective and curative treatments are available, the latest data from UKHSA shows that a small but not insignificant number of successfully treated individuals become re-infected with the virus, so maintaining prevention services is critical.

UKHSA is working with partners to prevent, detect and treat the infection – for example, by working with regional operational delivery networks (ODNs). UKHSA has enabled ODNs to streamline their own data and focus on the remaining people that need to be found and treated.

Dr Sema Mandal, Deputy Director, Blood Borne Viruses at UKHSA, said:

Hepatitis C treatment has improved dramatically over recent years, but we need to identify people with the infection early to keep on track with elimination by 2030. Many people remain undiagnosed, often because they have no symptoms or are unaware that they have ever been at risk.

If you have ever injected drugs – even if it was only once or years ago – you could be at risk of hepatitis C. If you think you could be at risk, speak to your GP or do a test at home.

Professor Sir Stephen Powis, NHS National Medical Director, said:

"Finding and treating more than 80,000 people as part of our hepatitis C elimination programme is a huge achievement and I’m delighted that we remain on track to eliminate the virus as a public health concern by 2030.

Earlier this year we launched a new service on the NHS website to enable people to confidentially order at-home testing kits, and so far over 4,500 people have used this kit to get tested.

Hepatitis C treatment is simple to take and highly effective, with people usually cleared of the virus within 3 to 4 months. If anyone is worried they might be at risk, it’s never been easier to get tested and be treated, or receive peace of mind, at the first opportunity.2

Health minister, Will Quince said:

"The data speaks for itself. We are making huge headway in eliminating hepatitis C, with England on track to be one of the first countries in the world to do so.

Deaths and prevalence of the virus have fallen consistently thanks to improvements in diagnosis and access to treatments. We are at the forefront of tackling this serious disease, by swiftly procuring the best treatments and tackling inequalities through targeted screening and will continue to work towards the World Health Organization’s target of eliminating this virus by 2030.