It is currently estimated that there are 144,000 people living with Hepatitis C in England alone. Though a small proportion of the total, men who have sex with men are one of the risk groups.

 Until now there has been no definite cure, and so far treatments have been long, debilitating, and often don’t work anyway. The usual outcome is cirrhosis of the liver, and eventual prognosis death.
So why is Hepatitis C treatment in the news? According to the Hep C Trust, new treatments are now available that can cure 95% of all cases, leading to a projected saving in England alone of over 5000 lives by 2030 and preventing the need for 1000 future liver transplants. The population of those living with Hepatitis C would be cut by over 90%.
What is needed is a nationwide screening programme and greater awareness. Often GPs don’t test for Hep C until the illness is quite advanced. Early diagnosis and treatment will mean that transmission rates will slow down, and eventually peter out, hence the projection that we could eliminate the disease by 2030. There are similarities with HIV here, in that early diagnosis and treatment can bring down a patient’s viral load to undetectable, meaning that it is virtually impossible for them to pass on the virus. But there is one important difference. Where there is still no cure for HIV, there is now a cure for Hep C, so it is doubly important that we get tested. As gay men, we are fortunate in that we are usually offered Hep C screening as a matter of course when attending a Sexual Health Clinic. If you aren’t, then ask for it.

This awareness needs to be extended into the wider populace, where the problem is one of implementation, which, as usual, is taking too long. A few days ago, The Guardian ran a story stating that, “the NHS is to pay for around 500 people with end-stage liver disease caused by hepatitis C to receive a new drug which could cure them, without waiting for guidance from the advisory body, Nice.”

As Charles Gore, one of the founder members of The Hepatitis C Trust put it at the media event I attended, “Are we going to step up and do this, or leave things as they are.” This would certainly seem to be a step in the right direction. Though the cost of treatment is high, it has to be weighed against the far greater cost of doing nothing, allowing Hepatitis C rates to increase, and ultimately putting a far greater burden on the NHS. We should be looking at the long term, not, as is sadly too often the case, the short term. Governments, as we know too well, rarely look past the next election date.
Let us hope that both the Government and the NHS take notice and set us on the path to eradicating this terrible disease.