Thousands may have unknowingly contracted hepatitis C abroad, experts warn

If left untreated, the virus can lead to life-threatening conditions. Credit: PA

Britons are being urged to get tested for hepatitis C after estimates show thousands may have unknowingly contracted the disease.

Overall around 70,000 people over the age of 18 in England are currently estimated to have undiagnosed hepatitis C.

Health experts are urging adults in England to take up the offer of free, at-home NHS testing after new research shows two-thirds have a low-level understanding of the virus.

Thousands of people in England might have hepatitis C which they unknowinglyacquired abroad, through dental, cosmetic or health procedures or even throughtattoos or piercings, experts say.It is a blood-borne virus that is often symptomless for years and in some cases, decades - which means people are still at risk.

If left untreated, the virus can lead to life-threatening conditions like liver cancer or even liver failure.

It is contracted when equipment for procedures is not sterilised, or appropriate hygiene measures are not followed.

Experts have also warned against sharing domestic items like razors and toothbrushes.

And with three in four people (74%) unaware that you can live with hepatitis C for years without showing any symptoms, the need for increased testing is high.

Anyone over 18 in England can get a free and discreet at-home testing kit, that involves a finger prick with a tiny blood sample dropped into a test tube, which is posted to a lab for analysis.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease. Credit: PA

Treatment - if the virus is not caught early - involves a course of tablets, a test on the liver to assess damage, and some lifestyle changes.

Dr Monica Desai, head of hepatitis at the UK Health Security Agency, said when the tests were rolled out: “Hepatitis C can cause severe liver disease and be fatal without the right treatment.

“Tens of thousands of people in England are living with the infection without realising, as it can be symptomless or cause very non-specific symptoms like tiredness in the initial stages.”

She continued: “The quicker you get diagnosed, the quicker you can start life-saving treatments.

“The virus is passed on through blood, so if you have ever injected drugs – even just once or years ago – please take up the offer of a hepatitis C test either through this new portal or through your GP.

"You should also get tested if you have had contact with the blood of someone who has the infection."

People over the age of 18 in England can order a free finger-prick at-home testing kit online here.

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