Hepatitis C could be wiped out in NI in five years under new plan, says Robin Swann
The minister was speaking after his department, alongside the Public Health Agency, published a new action plan to eliminate the disease here by 2025 – five years ahead of the target set by the World Health Organisation.
The virus can infect the liver and, if untreated, cause serious and even life-threatening damage over long periods of time.
It is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact and, due to the way symptoms take a long time to appear, many people can be living with the virus for a long time without knowing.
Mr Swann said: “Eliminating hepatitis C is a long a journey but significant progress has already been made. The roll-out of new oral therapies has helped cure over 97% of people treated and the new action plan will see the condition effectively eliminated here five years ahead of the World Health Organisation’s 2030 target.
“The last year has been a stark reminder of the devastating impact of infectious diseases on individuals and society. I am committed to making hepatitis C increasingly a disease of the past.”
Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said: “This is a hugely important piece of work and will deliver significant public health benefit. There is evidence that being treated for hepatitis C can be life changing for individuals so we must keep getting the message out that the condition can be cured and that anyone who has ever been at risk should get tested.”
The Department of Health say economic analysis has demonstrated that it is cost effective to treat hepatitis C at a pre-symptomatic stage as it can be cured, thus preventing serious complications such as liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.
It is also ‘treatment as prevention’ in that treating and curing those who are currently infected will prevent onward transmission, and therefore minimise the number of new cases arising.
Dr Claire Neill from the Public Health Agency said: “Hepatitis C elimination is a complex issue. Some people find it more challenging to access treatment than others and those who need treatment the most must be supported to access it.
“Over 3,000 people in Northern Ireland have tested positive for hepatitis C since 1996; approximately half of these have been referred for treatment; and just over 1,000 have been treated to date.
“The goal of the action plan is to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat in Northern Ireland by 2025. Beyond 2025, we will seek to reduce hepatitis C infection to an absolute minimum, relegating it to a rare disease of the past, similar to polio.”