Warning after rise in hep C cases

The number of cases of hepatitis C has increased by more than a third in two years. There were 7,882 cases confirmed in England in 2010, rising to 10,873 in 2012. Experts estimate there are 160,000 living with hep C, many unaware they are infected.

Liver disease and cancer admissions linked to hep C

The Public Health England figures, released ahead of World Hepatitis Day on Sunday, show that hospital admissions for end stage liver disease and liver cancer caused by hepatitis C increased from 574 in 1998 to 2,266 in 2012.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called hepatitis a "silent epidemic" because so many people do not realise they are infected.

Warnings that 'many unaware of hepatitis C infection'

Dr Helen Harris, a hepatitis expert at Public Health England said:

While there has been an increase in confirmed cases of hepatitis C infection, partly as a result of increased testing and partly because of improved laboratory reporting, sadly, many people chronically infected with hepatitis C remain unaware of their infection.

For many, it can be several years or even decades before they develop symptoms.

Antiviral therapies exist that will clear the virus in most cases, yet only around 3% of the chronically infected population in England access them each year.

If the number of people being treated is doubled over the next 10 years, around 6,000 new cases of hepatitis C-related end stage liver disease could be averted over the next 30 years.

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Symptoms of hepatitis C often go unnoticed

The hepatitis C virus causes inflammation of the liver and, if left untreated, can result in liver disease, liver failure and even death.

Because the liver can still function when it is damaged, infected people can be unaware they have the disease because they suffer no symptoms.

When symptoms do occur, they are often vague and can be easily mistaken for another condition. Symptoms include:

  • flu-like symptoms including a high temperature
  • feeling tired all the time
  • headaches
  • problems with short-term memory
  • depression
  • stomach pains
  • feeling or being sick
  • loss of appetite
  • abdominal pain
  • itchy skin
  • joint and muscle aches and pain

In England, the most common way people catch the infection is by sharing injectable drugs equipment - accounting for nine in every 10 cases.

Less commonly, people can get hepatitis C through sex or being exposed to infected body fluids.

  • For more information on hepatitis C see the NHS website

Hepatitis C cases increase by a third in England

The number of cases of hepatitis C has increased by more than a third in two years, figures show.

There were 7,882 cases confirmed in England in 2010, rising to 10,873 in 2012, Public Health England (PHE) said.

A man is tested for hepatitis B and C.
A man is tested for hepatitis B and C. Credit: Zak Hussein/PA Wire

Experts estimate there are around 160,000 people in England living with chronic hepatitis C, officials said.

Many of them are unaware they are infected.