Scotland faces Hep C timebomb with 30 new cases every week

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SCOTLAND is facing an "epidemic" of hepatitis C, with urgent action needed to tackle the problem, a leading doctor has warned.

An estimated 39,000 people in Scotland are infected with hepatitis C, with 1,600 new cases diagnosed each year - 30 a week - but many of those carrying the virus are unaware they have it.

Dr Roy Robertson, chairman of the National Forum on Drug-Related Deaths, said treatment services needed to be improved, alongside greater efforts to encourage more people to be tested and treated.

Estimates suggest that the annual death toll in Scotland linked to hepatitis C could increase to 200 by 2015. Currently, just over 100 liver-related deaths a year are linked to the infection.

Campaigners called for greater efforts to encourage more people to be tested for hepatitis C so they could receive treatment which could free them from the infection.

Dr Robertson, a GP in Edinburgh, said: "Hep C is a hugely important epidemic and it's almost entirely due to drug using. Most of the epidemic in Scotland has been among injecting drug users.

"We've always expected that this is going to be an increasing number of cases over many years.

"Some people who get the virus can clear it from their system and it's no longer a problem. Others go on having the disease but don't get ill for many, many years."

In many cases, people carrying the virus may have picked it up through drug use and sharing needles and not believe they are at risk. Others may have picked up hepatitis C through blood transfusions before testing for the virus started.

Over time, the disease can lead to severe symptoms and in the most serious cases lead to liver disease and death.

"Eventually the incubation period elapses and people begin to manifest cirrhosis and advanced liver failure and the death rate will undoubtedly increase over the next few years," Dr Robertson said.

He called for investment in treatment services to help tackle the hepatitis C problem.

"We treat probably about 1,000 cases per year in Scotland, which clearly isn't enough, and we need much more in terms of treatment services provision to reduce the size of the overall pool. For treatment services, now is the time," he said.Charles Gore, from the Hepatitis C Trust, said: "Only about half the people who have hepatitis C have been diagnosed so far, so the key thing to do in terms of treating people is to get them diagnosed."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "We have long recognised hepatitis C is a major public health issue - that is why we have delivered our Hepatitis C action plan, which includes specific actions to significantly increase the numbers of people being diagnosed and treated for the condition.

"As a direct result, we have increased the numbers of people being treated from less that less than 500 in 2007-08 to over 1,000 last year."