Detection rates for hepatitis C have fallen to their lowest level in decades despite estimates suggesting nearly 10,000 Scots are living with the condition undiagnosed.
The Hepatitis C Trust says the slowdown is “highly concerning”. It’s calling on the Scottish Government to accelerate plans to eliminate the blood-borne virus, which can cause serious and life-threatening liver damage.
Figures released recently show there were just over 1,400 new diagnoses in 2018, the lowest number since 1996.
Health Protection Scotland (HPS) estimates 21,000 Scots have a chronic form of hep C, more than 10,500 of whom have been diagnosed.
However detection numbers have been falling steadily since 2010.
Rachel Halford, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust commented:
“Scotland was previously considered a world-leader in its approach towards tackling hepatitis C but these new figures show a worrying slowdown in new diagnoses.
“We know that there are still over 10,000 people living with an undiagnosed infection of hepatitis C so it is highly concerning that we are seeing a drop-off in diagnoses. We urgently need to see the Scottish Government produce its long-promised hepatitis C elimination strategy to make sure Scotland gets back on track to achieving elimination by its target of 2030.”
Testing for the infection, which is often spread by needle-sharing and is most common in the most deprived groups, can be done through an initial pin-prick test. Treatment is successful in around 90% of cases. In 2018, 2,600 people were treated for the condition.
Although testing levels remain high, experts at HPS say checks, which are carried out in prisons, hospitals and at drug services, need to be better targeted. A pilot study in Tayside has seen initial testing undertaken by community pharmacists.
A 2018 report said there was a ‘renewed challenge’ to diagnose infected people who are becoming ‘more difficult to find.’
Joe FitzPatrick, the Scottish Government’s public health minister, said:
“I welcome this latest report from Health Protection Scotland, which shows that over 2,600 people were treated for hepatitis C during 2018/19. This significantly exceeds the treatment target of 2,000 treatment initiations and I would like to recognise the hard work of NHS, the third sector and Health Protection Scotland colleagues in making this happen.
“It is important that we maintain momentum, and keep getting people tested and into treatment. We must keep getting the message out that hepatitis C can be cured with a short course of pills, and that anyone who has ever been at risk should get tested.”
The news comes when NHSScotland’s data and statistic team published its annual review of prescribing, showing that more money was spent on dispensing medicine for people with Hepatitis C, glecaprevir and pibrentasvir, than any other single product.