Health Minister Robin Swann has praised the work of a specialist team of nurses and doctors in their efforts to eliminate Hepatitis C in Northern Ireland.
To mark World Hepatitis Day, the Minister met staff from the Belfast Health Inclusion Service and the Royal Victoria Hospital Hepatology team. They run vital outreach services for those most at risk of contracting the blood-borne virus that can infect the liver and, if left untreated, cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage over many years, including liver cancer.
World Hepatitis Day is observed each year on 28 July to raise awareness of hepatitis. This year’s theme is“Hepatitis can’t wait”, conveying the urgency of efforts needed to eliminate the disease as a public health threat. Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Public Health Agency published a new action plan to eliminate Hepatitis C in Northern Ireland by 2025.
Minister Swann said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the devastating impact of infectious disease, but it has also demonstrated what can be achieved when we work together in innovative and collaborative ways across the Health and Social Care system and the wider community.
“I am very encouraged by the significant progress that has been made in efforts to eliminate Hepatitis C which affects some of the most vulnerable in our society, particularly within the homeless community and those with a history of injecting drug use.
“The hard work, dedication and commitment of the Belfast Health Inclusion Service and the RVH Hepatology team is making a real difference in the lives of people infected with or at risk of contracting Hepatitis C.”
The Department of Health is committed to the elimination of Hepatitis C as a public health threat in Northern Ireland by 2025. Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride chairs the Hepatitis C elimination plan oversight group. He said:
“There is now great hope for those infected with Hepatitis C. The introduction of new oral therapies has helped cure over 97% of people treated. Treating Hepatitis C at a pre-symptomatic stage prevents serious complications such as liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma. Curing those who are currently infected will prevent onward transmission, and therefore minimise the number of new cases arising. I commend the work of our specialist teams who are reaching out to those most at risk and making a real difference to their lives.”
The Royal Victoria Hospital Hepatology team introduced outreach clinics in settings such as the Belfast Inclusion Health Service, addiction centres and the prisons. Throughout the pandemic they have treated 126 patients positive for Hepatitis C. Of these, 51 patients were treated through the outreach services working around the challenges of lockdown, restriction of services, social distancing and staff redeployment.
Susan Semple, Health Co-ordinator, said: “The Belfast Inclusion Health Service has been at the frontline of eliminating Hepatitis C since 2016. We recognise the extreme health and social inequalities faced by those who come through our doors and our dedicated multidisciplinary team provide a trauma informed caring environment for individuals to receive vital health and social care. Joined up working, innovation in service delivery and flexibility in access criteria are key to the success of eliminating blood borne viruses for this population.”
Dr Gillian Armstrong, Consultant in Health Protection at the PHA, said: “World Hepatitis Day is a timely reminder that Hepatitis can’t wait, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are working hard with our partners to raise awareness and testing of Hepatitis and make treatment as accessible as possible. We have an opportunity to make Hepatitis B and C diseases of the past. I would encourage people who may be at risk to get tested and to remember that there is an effective vaccine for Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can be cured.”