Tens of thousands of people at increased risk of hepatitis C will be able to confidentially order self-testing kits to their home from this week, as the NHS steps up its bid to eliminate the deadly disease.
The discreet, at-home testing kits will now be free to order online as part of NHS England’s dedicated Hepatitis C Elimination Programme, which has already reduced deaths from the disease by 35% – exceeding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target of 10% by more than threefold.
The health service is leading the world in the eradication of hepatitis C as it marks its 75th year, with the latest tool placing England in pole position to be among the first countries in the world to eliminate the virus as a public health concern – ahead of the 2030 WHO commitment.
The test involves a finger prick with a tiny blood sample dropped into a test tube, which is posted to a lab for analysis. Those who receive a positive test result will then be contacted and referred for treatment.
The new self-testing kits aim to reach people who may not be engaged with other services such as drug and alcohol support, prison and probation services, as well as people who may have potentially been exposed to virus in the past, or who do not feel able to approach their GP.
Risk factors for hepatitis C include previous or current injecting drug use, being in the criminal justice system and being born, or have lived, in a country where the bloodborne disease is endemic.
This includes countries in South Asia such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and where people can come into contact with infected blood through medical procedures, blood transfusions and blood products, or equipment used in cosmetic services. For this reason the web portal will be available in both Urdu and English.
Announcing the launch of the self-testing online service, NHS national medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “As we celebrate 75 years of the NHS, I’m delighted we are on track to eliminate hepatitis C as a public health threat by 2030, which may rank among the most significant NHS successes in history, alongside the mass vaccination of polio and diphtheria, organ transplants and driving down smoking rates.
“As patient numbers get smaller and each remaining case becomes harder to find and cure, it’s vital we offer easy-to-access self-test kits — especially for those who have been exposed to the virus but may be reluctant to come forward. This latest tool will therefore be critical to ensuring more people can receive the treatment they need, or peace of mind, at the earliest opportunity.”
The web-portal has been developed in partnership with Preventx, a leading provider of remote diagnostic services for the NHS, and with further input from Nuom and the Hepatitis C Trust.
Ruth Poole, Chief Executive Officer at Preventx, said: “We are proud to be partnering with NHS England to deliver this important service.
“The NHS is so close to achieving its hepatitis C elimination goals, but the last mile of a race is often the hardest. Having worked with the NHS for 15 years, we know that remote diagnostics are an effective way to increase uptake in testing.
“This includes reaching people from communities and groups who do not regularly engage with in person services. Our smart technology allows us to deliver a service that works for all patients, as well as giving services the insight they need to understand risk and plan public health strategies.
“By offering this pioneering remote service for hepatitis C, we will be able to get more people to test and help ensure no one slips through the cracks. Crucially, we will also be able to start treatment for those people who are infected as early as possible.”
Testing is crucial, because people with hepatitis C can live symptomless lives for many years, and the virus can lead to liver disease and cancer. GPs are also being encouraged to point any patients who might have been exposed to the virus to the portal so they can test themselves and either put their mind at rest or begin effective treatment.
Dr Monica Desai, Head of Hepatitis at UKHSA, said: “Hepatitis C can cause severe liver disease and be fatal without the right treatment. But tens of thousands of people in England are living with the infection without realising, as it can be symptomless or cause very non-specific symptoms like tiredness in the initial stages.
“The quicker you get diagnosed, the quicker you can start life-saving treatments. The virus is passed on through blood, so if you have ever injected drugs – even just once, or years ago – please take up the offer of a hepatitis C test either through this new portal or through your GP. You should also get tested if you have had contact with the blood of someone who has the infection.
“This can occur more commonly in certain countries overseas by sharing a razor, having a tattoo, receiving a transfusion, or having medical procedures.”
Shabana Begum, 56, from Yorkshire found out she had Hepatitis C in 2004 after a period of presenting to her GP with symptoms that were difficult to diagnose.
Shabana said: “Every hair on my body hurt, I had insomnia, flu-like symptoms and I was seeing my GP every three or four days. Eventually, after all the other test results came back negative, I was diagnosed with hepatitis C.”
After being told she had been living with the virus for between 15 to 20 years, Shabana was able to link it to injections she had received when she moved to Pakistan as a teenager.
She added: “Hepatitis C is highly prevalent in South Asia, but whichever country you may come from, so it’s extremely important to get tested and then treated as well. The new treatment is so easy today, with far fewer side effects.
“I think the new testing portal is a brilliant idea because for people who feel they don’t have time to see their GP or go to community events, they can log in online and just order a test. It’s much more accessible and hopefully more people will get tested that way.”
Rachel Halford, CEO of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “If you are concerned about hepatitis C, it’s never been easier to find out if you have it.
“You can go many years before you experience any symptoms of hepatitis C but the damage the virus can do to your liver as it goes undetected can be life-threatening.
“People can be exposed to hepatitis C a number of ways, including having a blood transfusion before the early 1990s, having medical treatment or a tattoo abroad or via injecting drugs use. Free, at-home testing kits will give anyone who is worried about hepatitis C the ability to find out their status quickly and confidentially.
“Thankfully, hepatitis C can be treated via a short course of tablets. Order your test now so that you can get cured as quickly as possible.”
Following a five-year contract worth almost £1 billion to buy antiviral drugs for thousands of patients, deaths from Hepatitis C – including liver disease and cancer – have fallen by 35%.
This week’s announcement follows the recent news that two hundred children in England have now received life-saving treatment for hepatitis C as part of a world-first NHS programme.
The NHS remains on course to eliminate hepatitis C ahead of any other country in the world thanks, in part, to an innovative deal with pharma companies that means they help find patients with the condition – another example of the benefit of a single national health service in being able to deliver new innovations and life-changing care at pace and scale as the NHS turns 75.