Sir Peter Bottomley is MP for Worthing West.
As the member of the House of Commons with the third longest continuous service, I know how illuminating it can be to look back over a career and take stock of how far things have come. Many MPs have worked to bring the truth about the infected blood scandal to light via a public inquiry, a battle that took decades. It has exposed the plight of the thousands of people – haemophiliacs and others who received blood transfusions on the NHS prior to 1991 – who were infected by HIV and hepatitis C as a result.
Thankfully public awareness of HIV has grown dramatically during my time in Parliament, in large part due to the efforts of Norman Fowler, to whom I was parliamentary private secretary during his time as Secretary of State of Health and Social Services. The public service advertisements which appeared in national newspapers, on leaflets and on the nation’s TV screens (with a voiceover by John Hurt) became notorious for their hard-hitting slogans, including: “AIDS. Don’t die of ignorance.” The campaigns on HIV and AIDS in the 1980s were highly successful in addressing a major public health issue, and they have become iconic.
Public awareness of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) remains low. I met recently with Professor Ashley Brown, Vice Chair of the Hepatitis C Coalition, which campaigns to eliminate the virus. When he talks about the opportunity to eliminate the hepatitis C virus (HCV) he talks about it in relation to his medical career. When he first started working as a doctor, hepatitis C didn’t even have a name. Once the virus had finally been isolated and identified in the late 1980s, it had gained a logical title: hepatitis C, after the A and B that had been identified earlier. That was the time in which the fight against HIV and AIDs was at its zenith.
Following World Hepatitis Day on Sunday, raising the profile of hepatitis C remains a timely act. There are an estimated 200,000 people across the UK living with chronic HCV infection. The virus is sometimes known as the ‘silent killer’ because it often has no symptoms until the liver is very damaged, and, if left untreated, it can cause liver cancer and death. Yet it can now be easily treated and cured by simply taking a medicine for a few weeks, a transformative development for patients.
The Government has signed up to the World Health Organisation’s target to eliminate HCV by 2030. The NHS has announced it is aiming to go one further and eliminate it in England by 2025. Having concluded a ground-breaking deal with industry, the NHS will work together with companies over the next three years to find and treat the tens of thousands of people in England who are living with HCV but unaware of their status, as well as all those who have been tested but who remain untreated.
The benefits for the NHS could be huge. Already there is evidence from Public Health England that the death rate from hepatitis C-related liver diseases has already fallen by more than 16 per cent between 2015 and 2017. The NHS is also seeing cost savings from a fall in liver transplants for patients with hepatitis C, with a reduction of almost 40 per cent in 2017 compared to 2015. While the potential for a very positive public health story for both the NHS and the Government is within reach, we have our work cut out to find the estimated 50 per cent of people who do not know they are infected.
Awareness is a huge piece of the puzzle, as well as tackling the stigma that persists around blood borne viruses. Many people don’t know what hepatitis C is, and even those who do often don’t know that it can be cured. Up until the last five years, the only treatment was by injections, had horrible side effects and often didn’t work; now hepatitis C is curable with a short treatment course for the majority of people. Then there are the risk factors. While it’s true that the majority of cases arise through injecting drug use, there are other risk factors to consider. Some patients may have been born or raised overseas, used drugs when much younger, had a tattoo while travelling abroad or, of course, if they have received a blood transfusion in the UK prior to 1991. You don’t have to fit into a high risk category to have been exposed to the virus. While HCV is usually without symptoms, some patients experience non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, fever and joint pain.
I know from speaking to Professor Brown that he would love to see this disease that was only identified at the start of his career to be wiped out before he hangs up his white coat. Having spent so long campaigning for the victims of infected blood over the course of my long parliamentary career, I would be similarly delighted to see this come to pass. Lord Fowler would too, as well as my colleagues on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood.
It is very rare that we have the opportunity to wipe out a virus, eliminating it as a major human disease, but we have the opportunity to do that here. It’s an opportunity that our Government should seize with both hands.