The Department of Health and Public Health Agency have published a new action plan to eliminate hepatitis C in Northern Ireland by 2025.
Hepatitis C is a virus that can infect the liver and, if left untreated, cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage over many years. The virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. Many people with hepatitis C will be living without a diagnosis, due to the infection often having no specific symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. When symptoms do occur, they can often be mistaken for other conditions.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Eliminating hepatitis C is a long a journey but significant progress has already been made. The roll-out of new oral therapies has helped cure over 97% of people treated and the new action plan will see the condition effectively eliminated here five years ahead of the World Health Organisation’s 2030 target. The last year has been a stark reminder of the devastating impact of infectious diseases on individuals and society. I am committed to making hepatitis C increasingly a disease of the past.”
Dr Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer said “This is a hugely important piece of work and will deliver significant public health benefit. There is evidence that being treated for hepatitis C can be life changing for individuals so we must keep getting the message out that the condition can be cured and that anyone who has ever been at risk should get tested.”
Health economic analysis has demonstrated that it is cost effective to treat hepatitis C at a pre-symptomatic stage as it can be cured, thus preventing serious complications such as liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. It is also ‘treatment as prevention’ in that treating and curing those who are currently infected will prevent onward transmission, and therefore minimise the number of new cases arising.
Dr Claire Neill, Public Health Doctor at Public Health Agency said: “Hepatitis C elimination is a complex issue. Some people find it more challenging to access treatment than others and those who need treatment the most must be supported to access it. Over 3,000 people in Northern Ireland have tested positive for hepatitis C since 1996; approximately half of these have been referred for treatment; and just over 1,000 have been treated to date.
“The goal of the action plan is to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat in Northern Ireland by 2025. Beyond 2025, we will seek to reduce hepatitis C infection to an absolute minimum, relegating it to a rare disease of the past, similar to polio.”