The NHS is to use artificial intelligence to detect, screen and treat those at risk of hepatitis C as part of plans to eradicate the disease by 2030.
Hepatitis C often has no noticeable symptoms until the liver has been severely damaged, meaning thousands of people live with the infection – known as the silent killer – without realizing it .
Left untreated, it can cause fatal liver damage over the years. But with modern treatments now available, it is possible to cure the infection.
Now health chiefs are launching a high-tech testing program in England in a new drive to identify thousands of people unaware they have the virus.
The programme, due to start in the next few weeks, aims to help people living with hepatitis C get a life-saving diagnosis and access treatment before it’s too late.
The NHS will identify people who may have the virus by using AI to scan health records for a number of key risk factors, such as historical blood transfusions or an HIV diagnosis.
Anyone identified through the new screening process will be invited for an examination by their GP and, if appropriate, further screening for hepatitis C. Those who test positive for the virus will be offered available treatment after NHS England struck a deal with three big pharma companies. .
Professor Graham Foster, national clinical chair of NHS England’s hepatitis C elimination programmes, said the program “marks a significant step forward” in the fight to eliminate the virus by 2030. It “will use new software to identify and test the patients most at risk of the virus – potentially saving thousands of lives,” he added.
“Hepatitis C can be a deadly disease that affects tens of thousands of people across the country, but with unrestricted access to NHS treatments, innovative patient research initiatives like this…we will continue to increase life chances of thousands of patients by catching the virus even earlier.”
Hepatitis C deaths have fallen by more than a third in five years. Recent data shows that the number of deaths from the virus has fallen by 35%, from 482 in 2015 to 314 in 2020 in England. New cases have also risen from 129,000 in 2015 to 81,000 in 2020, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through blood contact. It can be spread by sharing unsterilized needles – especially needles used to inject recreational drugs.
Actor Pamela Anderson contracted hepatitis C while married to musician Tommy Lee, who had a history of drug addiction, when the couple shared a tattoo needle. Anderson, 55, was cured after taking antivirals.
Experts say the recent drop in deaths is largely due to earlier detection of the virus coupled with better access to treatment.
Rachel Halford, Chief Executive of the Hepatitis C Trust, said: “With the brilliant progress we have seen in the treatment of hepatitis C in recent years, we have a real opportunity to eliminate the virus as a health problem. public over the next few years. However, to do this, we need to make progress in finding people living with an undiagnosed infection and linking them to treatment.
“That’s why the announcement of this new screening program is such good news. Primary care is where we are most likely to find those who have been living with an undiagnosed infection for many years.
“There has been brilliant work to expand testing in a wide range of settings in recent years, but we have yet to see the progress we need to see in primary care. Rolling out this screening program is therefore another crucial step towards elimination.
NHS staff are also visiting at-risk communities in specially equipped trucks to test for the virus and carry out liver health checks with portable scanners to detect liver damage.
The health service is aiming to eliminate the virus in England ahead of the 2030 global target set by the World Health Organisation.