- Hepatitis C is a virus which can lead to inflammation of the liver and cause liver disease, and can even lead to cancer of the liver if left untreated
- Most people are oblivious to the fact they are infected because the liver can still operate when damaged and the virus does not produce any obvious symptoms
- Only once the liver becomes seriously damaged and symptoms occur do people visit their GP where it is diagnosed
- The virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, and very rarely through sexual intercourse
- Infection is not passed on through social contact, kissing or sharing food or drink
Thousands of people across the UK are being contacted after a healthcare worker infected two patients with the hepatitis C virus.
A major alert is under way after it was discovered that a retired obstetrics and gynaecology worker unknowingly had the virus while employed by the NHS for decades.
It is known the healthcare worker infected two patients with the virus while working at a hospital in Wales, Public Health England said.
A healthcare worker infected with Hepatitis C is known to have transmitted the virus to two patients.
Now, further patients who may have been treated by them are being contacted and offered advice and blood tests.
The healthcare professional worked at:
- Caerphilly District Miners’ Hospital, between May 1984 and July 2003
- East Glamorgan Hospital, in Pontypridd, between 28 May 1984 and 17 July 1984
- Maelor General Hospital, in Wrexham, between 15 May 1978 and 27 June 1978
North Wales' health board says the healthcare professional infected with Hepatitis C worked briefly at Wrexham Maelor Hospital (known then as the Maelor General Hospital) in May and June 1978.
Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board says the risk of passing on the virus during a healthcare procedure is low, and could only happen if the worker suffered an injury causing them to bleed while treating the patient.
It says it has been reviewing its records, and obstetric and gynaecology patients from that time have been offered advice a blood test as a precautionary measure. Specialist clinic sessions will be held at Wrexham Maelor Hospital.
Andrew Jones, Director of Public Health for the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, said: “I know that this news will cause some concern for patients who were seen in Wrexham at around that time. However I want to stress that the risk of transmission is low."
"Even so, it is important that we contact patients who were treated by this person and offer them support and the opportunity of a blood test. This will allow us to give reassurance that all is well or, if we do identify a person who is carrying the virus, ensure they get advice and treatment."
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.
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.
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
- problems with short-term memory
- 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
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.
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.