The NHS is to use artificial intelligence to detect, screen and treat people at risk of hepatitis C under plans to eradicate the disease by 2030.
Hepatitis C often does not have any noticeable symptoms until the liver has been severely damaged, which means thousands of people are living with the infection – known as the silent killer – without realising it.
Left untreated, it can cause life-threatening damage to the liver over years. But with modern treatments now available, it is possible to cure the infection.
Now health chiefs are launching a hi-tech screening programme in England in a fresh drive to identify thousands of people unaware they have the virus.
The scheme, due to begin in the next few weeks, aims to help people living with hepatitis C get a life-saving diagnosis and access to treatment before it is too late.
The NHS will identify people who may have the virus by using AI to scan health records for a number of key risk factors, such as historical blood transfusions or an HIV diagnosis.
Anyone identified through the new screening process will be invited for a review by their GP and, if appropriate, further screening for hepatitis C. Those who test positive for the virus will be offered treatment available after NHS England struck a deal with three major pharmaceutical companies.
Prof Graham Foster, national clinical chair for NHS England’s hepatitis C elimination programmes, said the scheme “marks a significant step forward” in the fight to eliminate the virus before 2030. It will “use new software to identify and test patients most at risk from the virus – potentially saving thousands of lives”, he added.
“Hepatitis C can be a fatal disease which affects tens of thousands across the country but with unlimited access to NHS treatments, innovative patient finding initiatives such as this one … we will continue to boost the life chances of thousands of patients by catching the virus even earlier.”
Hepatitis C deaths have fallen by over a third in five years. Recent data shows the number of deaths from the virus has decreased by 35%, from 482 in 2015 to 314 in 2020 in England. New cases have also fallen from 129,000 in 2015 to 81,000 in 2020, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
Hepatitis C is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact. It can be spread by sharing unsterilised needles – particularly needles used to inject recreational drugs.
The actor Pamela Anderson contracted hepatitis C while married to the musician Tommy Lee, who had a history of drug abuse, when the couple shared a tattoo needle. Anderson, 55, was cured after taking antivirals.
Experts say the recent fall in deaths is largely down to earlier detection of the virus coupled with improved access to treatments.
Rachel Halford, the chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust, said: “Thanks to the brilliant advances we have seen in hepatitis C treatment in recent years we have a real opportunity to eliminate the virus as a public health concern in the next few years. However, in order to do so we need to make progress in finding those living with an undiagnosed infection and refer them into treatment.
“That is why the announcement of this new screening programme is such welcome news. Primary care is where we are most likely to find those who have been living with an undiagnosed infection for many years.
“There has been brilliant work to expand testing in a wide range of settings in recent years but we have not yet seen the advances we need to see in primary care. The rollout of this screening programme is therefore another crucial step towards achieving elimination.”
NHS staff are also visiting at-risk communities in specially equipped trucks to test for the virus and carry out liver health checks with portable scans to detect liver damage.
The health service is aiming to wipe out the virus in England before the global goal of 2030 set by the World Health Organization.