Project launched to tackle spread of Hepatitis C

The project is being pioneered by researchers at Dundee University. Picture: PA
The project is being pioneered by researchers at Dundee University. Picture: PA
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A MAJOR £2.2 million project to tackle the spread of hepatitis C infections among drug users in Tayside has been launched by Dundee University and NHS Tayside.

• The project is aimed at giving early treatment to small numbers in the hope of preventing the need to treat larger numbers later

• About 20 per cent of people living with hepatitis C will fight off the infection without treatment

• 100 Hepatitis C sufferers across Tayside will be recruited over the next five years and enrolled in a treatment programme

It is hoped that by giving early treatment to small numbers of people who inject drugs and are infected with hepatitis C, it will prevent the need to treat larger numbers later, reducing the risk of addicts suffering from liver cirrhosis and cancer which can develop over time if hepatitis C remains untreated.

The plan is to recruit 100 patients across Tayside with hepatitis C over the next five years. They will be enrolled in a programme of treatment delivered through existing frontline specialist services. And patients will be supported in a variety of ways including mobile phone reminders to take their medication.

Dr John Dillon, the Consultant Hepatologist who is leading the project, said: “Hepatitis C is a disease which consumes a significant amount of resource in the NHS.

“The general thinking in recent times has been that the population of people who inject drugs is generally too unstable and consists of people with lives which are too chaotic to allow for the sort of sustained treatment that Hepatitis C needs to achieve a cure.

“However, our view is that with the right approach, supported with appropriate resources, we can tackle what is a very significant problem and reduce the rates of hepatitis C infection.”

Dr Dillon explained: “The course of treatment for hepatitis C is a long one, running for 24 weeks or more, and it requires patients to take their medication regularly and attend for an injection once a week. It is a treatment that requires support and dedication but we think that, done properly, it could have a marked effect on infection rates and, consequently, significant benefits in terms of public health and cost to the health services.”

Ann Eriksen, NHS Tayside’s executive lead for sexual health and blood-borne virus, welcomed the trial. She said, “The clinical trial offers for the first time the real prospect of radically reducing the prevalence of hepatitis C in the population most at risk. The fact that this has come to Tayside is testament to Scotland’s success in tackling hepatitis C as a country and in particular to the farsightedness, innovation, skill and care of the clinical team and partner agencies.”

Michael Matheson, Scotland’s Minister for Public Health, said the treatment scheme would attract worldwide interest from medical specialists.

He said: “In Scotland, we are recognised internationally for our response to hepatitis C, which is in large part due to the Scottish Government’s Hepatitis C Action Plan and Sexual Health and Blood Borne Virus Framework.

“This project demonstrates our commitment to invest in new approaches and efforts to tackle the disease. The work being carried out by the clinicians and academics in Dundee will undoubtedly be of international interest, and could significantly change the way we respond to the disease.”

A university spokesman said: “Hepatitis C has been a particular problem among people who inject drugs as it can be easily spread through contact with blood, so shared drug paraphernalia such as needles present a significant risk.

“Hepatitis C is a virus that is carried in the blood and predominantly affects the liver; it is sometimes called HCV or hep C. It can cause inflammation, scarring and sometimes significant cirrhosis damage to the liver. Cirrhosis increases the risk of developing liver cancer and can even lead to liver failure.”

He added: “About 20 per cent of people living with hep C will fight off the infection without treatment and, as a result, it will be naturally cleared from their bodies leaving no long-term effects.

“However, for most people who have hep C it is a chronic condition which means that it can cause liver damage for a long period of time often over 20 to 30 years. It can be present for many years without any symptoms at all. The first time that a patient may know they have the infection is when they develop liver failure or liver cancer.”

The £2.2 million project is funded by the Scottish Government and the drug companies Janssen and Roche.