Although progress has been made in increasing detection and diagnosis of hepatitis C in recent years, it is estimated that about 100,000 people in England have undiagnosed chronic hepatitis C infection. We look at why nurses could hold the key to getting thousands more people tested and treated.
Where do nurses come in?
At the heart of the problem is the nature of the virus itself, as very few people experience any symptoms for many years which might prompt them to seek medical advice.
Nurses play a critical role in helping to determine whether a patient could be at risk by alerting them to the transmission routes for the virus. As the campaign launches over the coming months you may expect to see an increase in the number of people asking for more information, or seeking a test for hepatitis C.
What impact can nurses make?
One of the common misconceptions about hepatitis C is that the virus is untreatable, which can dissuade patients from seeking medical advice. There is also some misunderstanding over the availability of a vaccine. Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C yet effective treatment is available. The majority of patients who receive treatment do successfully clear the virus (55% on average) and success rates can be around 80% for patients with certain hepatitis C virus genotypes - so nurse support from diagnosis to treatment can make a substantial impact. If left undiagnosed and untreated, hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis, primary liver cancer or the need for a liver transplant.
'Without any obvious symptoms for the virus, nurses are most likely to suspect hepatitis C infection through knowing about their patient's background and being alert to any signals which suggest exposure to the virus', comments Ray Poll, a hepatitis C specialist nurse from Sheffield.
Who is at risk?
Although the most common transmission route for contracting hepatitis C is sharing of equipment for intravenous drug use, there are other routes of infection which can affect anyone.
Poll continues: 'The type of people I see in an average week in the hepatitis C clinic can vary considerably. Most recently, they've included a family man in employment who received a blood transfusion prior to 1991; a man in his 60s originally from South Asia who had become infected through medical treatment in his home country and a married woman who dabbled with injecting drugs over 25 years ago.'
Increasing public awareness of the virus can help stimulate conversations between nurses and their patients, which is why the new campaign prompts the public with a series of questions around their past life experiences. The adverts touch on travel abroad to partying and dabbling with drugs in the past and urge the public to self-assess their risk of infection.
|Hepatitis C - who's at risk?|
Hepatitis C is mainly transmitted through infected blood. Patients are at risk if they have ever:
Hepatitis C may also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby before or during the birth.
There is emerging evidence that South Asians in this country may be at increased risk of infection, for example, because of medical or dental treatment with unsterile equipment in their countries of origin. There will be a targeted awareness campaign for South Asian communities and healthcare professionals working with them.
Where can I get more information?
Further information is available at www.nhs.uk/hepc/hcp. A helpline for patients is available on 0800 181 4114.