Liver expert warns hepatitis C treatment breakthroughs could 'go to waste'

Mark Wright

A liver expert based at Southampton’s teaching hospitals has warned major breakthroughs in hepatitis C treatment could “go to waste” as many sufferers remain unaware they have the disease.

Dr Mark Wright, a consultant hepatologist at Southampton General Hospital, said that although cure rates of up to 70% and above were now commonplace for people diagnosed early, poor understanding of the risks meant many would not benefit.

He spoke out ahead of the rollout of two new drugs – Telaprevir and Boceprevir – in the NHS later this year.

It is estimated around 500,000 people in the UK are infected with hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus which causes inflammation and scarring of the liver tissue and can lead to cirrhosis or liver failure, with most unaware they have the condition.

The new treatments, which are currently being used at Southampton General as part of a series of pioneering studies at the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, work by directly attacking the infection, preventing it from spreading or reproducing in the future.

“Hepatitis C is a tricky virus which often results in liver damage before it causes any symptoms so, with most of the estimated half a million affected people in the UK unaware they have the disease, it is easy to see we are on dangerous ground,” said Dr Wright, who also represents the British Liver Trust.

“Yet the tragedy of all of this is that, while we are not seeing the large numbers of people we know are infected coming forward due to ongoing poor understanding of the risks, treatments continue to get better and stronger yet may, sadly, go to waste if we can’t get this vital message through."

Anyone who had a blood transfusion prior to 1990, has ever shared needles to inject drugs, has had medical care abroad or has tattoos is at risk of hepatitis C. The illness can also be transmitted through sexual intercourse.

Dr Wright added: “If you know you have put yourself at risk you should talk to your doctor about getting tested because the disease is treatable and more and more people can be cured thanks to a large number of new medicines such as those being used and tested here in Southampton.

"We run the risk of seeing an entire generation lose their chance to live a fit, long and healthy life in the worst possible circumstances – when the treatment is there and available for those who recognise they are vulnerable. If you are able to clear the virus and stop it returning, the disease process halts and the liver recovers."

Posted on Thursday 9 February 2012