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NHS expands ‘one-hour’ liver testing for hepatitis C

Thousands of people unknowingly living with hepatitis C are to be identified, diagnosed and cured thanks to major NHS investment in rapid testing technology and an extension of a ground-breaking medicines deal.

New liver scanning and portable testing units will be deployed in a range of communities where patients are at high risk of contracting the infection. This includes on community clinical outreach vans, at drug and alcohol support services, or at special testing events in some GP practices as part of the final phase of the dedicated hepatitis C Elimination Programme, which could see England become to first country in the world to eliminate the virus as a public health threat.

Once found by targeted outreach, hepatitis C patients can be treated on the NHS with antiviral medicines all thanks to a two-year extension to a pioneering deal with three pharmaceutical companies, to supply the latest antiviral drugs. Since the elimination programme drive began in 2015, around 84,000 people have been treated for hepatitis C and it is hoped the virus can be stamped out as a public health concern in England, years ahead of the World Health Organisation’s 2030 ambition.

NHS National Medical Director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “This investment ensures the NHS will continue to save thousands of lives and set the international standard in the drive to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030 and, while tackling a significant health inequality. New portable testing devices, and an extension of our landmark commercial deal, is helping us reach those most at risk as we begin our final push to wipe out the virus and find and cure any remaining cases.”

It is estimated that over 60,000 people may be currently living with chronic hepatitis C in England without knowing they have the virus. This is because often there are no specific symptoms until the liver has been significantly damaged. When symptoms do occur, they can often be mistaken for other conditions.

NHS England is investing £4.2 million to buy 25 FibroScan machines, which will be deployed in communities and care settings and facilities where there are potential hepatitis C patients. The scanners test for liver damage and provide immediate results, referring people to onward care if needed and helping to diagnose liver disease and liver cancer at an earlier, more treatable stage.

Thirty-four Cepheid GeneXpert portable testing units will also be procured and expanded to community settings including GP clinics and prisons, to allow the elimination programme’s teams to test people experiencing homelessness or drug users who may struggle to meet appointments. The kit can detect whether people are infected with the hepatitis C virus in less than 60 minutes.

Complementing this, the two-year extension of the deal originally struck in 2019 will see the NHS continuing to work together with drug firms Gilead Sciences, Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD) and AbbVie to ensure patients can access the latest antiviral treatments.

Dr Monica Desai, Head of Hepatitis at UKHSA, said: “Hepatitis C elimination as a public health threat is in reach if we can accelerate testing, support people to access effective treatment that clears the virus, reduce the stigma experienced by people living with hepatitis C and prevent people getting the infection in the first place – particularly for people who inject drugs.”

The contract extension and testing investment comes after NHS England introduced a web portal – www.hepctest.nhs.uk – where people can confidentially order self-testing kits to their home. The test involves a finger prick with a tiny blood sample dropped into a test tube, which is posted to a laboratory for analysis.

 

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