AS January commences, two campaigns “Dry January” and “Love your Liver Month” aim to raise awareness an often-forgotten organ.

Yet alcohol is not the only hazard for your liver. Blood borne infection, through contaminated needles and risky sexual practices can lead to hepatitis. Hepatitis literally means inflammation of the liver.

Hepatitis C is a major cause of disability and death. It is one of the leading causes of cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer. This is also referred to as hepatocellular cancer, or HCC for short.

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Currently there are 120,000 persons in the UK living with chronic (long term) hepatitis C, and fifty-eight million worldwide. It is estimated that the majority are not aware of this.

The main reason for this is that it occurs more often in those less likely to get checked for the condition. These include those with no fixed address and chaotic lifestyles. Such persons are less likely to come forward to seek healthcare, either for routine issues, or in an emergency.

Hepatitis C, often abbreviated to Hep C, is transmitted from one individual to another via infected blood. As well as needles, sharing razor blades and toothbrushes can increase the risk. Any sexual activity where you may be exposed to blood should be a cause for concern. Thankfully all blood products in the UK have been screened for hepatitis C since September 1991.

Hepatitis C cannot be caught by routine social contact such as shaking hands and hugging.

Initially you may be entirely unaware of being infected with hepatitis C. A short lived illness may occur in around twenty percent, between two weeks to six months after initial exposure. As well as the typical symptoms of a viral illness such as general unwell, fever and muscle ache, signs specific to hepatitis include pale stools, dark urine, and jaundice. Jaundice is where the whites of the eyes and the skin take on a yellowish tinge.

Thankfully, thirty percent will clear hepatitis, more than likely without ever knowing they had it at all. However, for the remaining seventy percent, chronic hepatitis will develop. Yet the lag time between becoming infected and any serious illness can be decades. After twenty years between 15-30 percent will develop liver cirrhosis.

Against this bleak backdrop, there is some excellent news, the UK leading the way against this often-silent killer.

Thanks to the purchase of one billion pounds worth of anti-viral drugs as well as “find and treat” programmes that aim to identify those at highest risk, we may see an end to the disease as soon as 2025. This is five years ahead of the estimated date, and we also may be the first to be able to announce eradication.

Between the years 2015-2020, in the UK deaths due to hepatitis C have dropped by 35 per cent. This is more than triple the target set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) who looked for a ten percent reduction.

In the last six years, the number awaiting a liver transplant as a result of complications of hepatitis C has dropped by two thirds. The number of transplants performed for hep C has fallen from 140 to 50.

In the same time period, seventy thousand individuals have been treated for hepatitis C. This is in no small part due to the help of charities such as St. Mungo’s, which support those experiencing homelessness. This also includes children born with hepatitis C due to transmission from an infected mother. In the last year over 100 children and teenagers were given lifesaving anti-viral treatment.

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The treatment for hepatitis C has also simplified greatly in the last two decades. Previously management of the disease was supervised by dedicated hospital specialists, with long treatment times. As a result, many did not finish the course, leaving them still infected.

Today once diagnosis is confirmed, two agents in combination are used for the majority. These antivirals are called sofosbuvir and daclatasvir.

Treatment schedules can be as short as eight to twelve weeks. Treatment is successful in around 95 per cent of cases. Professionals can screen for and address other physical, psychological, and social concerns, hopefully giving anyone with hepatitis C not just a cure, but the best chance of a brighter future.