- Almost one in a hundred women in the UK may be infected
with the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus, according to a study published
- The worrying rate of infection has prompted experts to
call for a national screening programme of pregnant women.
- Antenatal screening for the hepatitis C virus (HCV) could
lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment and reduce long-term complications
of the disease, such as liver damage and cancer, said the study, published
in the medical journal Gut.
- About 400,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with hepatitis
C, but many more may unknowingly have the virus and show no symptoms. It
is transmitted sexually or through blood, with injecting drug users and
people who have tattoos or body piercings with unsterilised equipment at
increased risk of infection.
- Hepatitis C is one of the most serious forms of the virus
and if left untreated, can cause permanent liver damage, cancer of the
liver and death.
- Researchers for the study tested more than 4,000 pregnant
women for HCV when they went for their first antenatal appointment at St
Mary's Hospital in London between 1997 and 1999.
- They found that 0.8% tested positive for hepatitis C
infection - and that two-thirds of those who were positive did not know
they were infected.
- Although women who had used illegal drugs were significantly
more likely to test positive, three quarters of those newly diagnosed
had no obvious risk factors.
- This showed that "targeted screening" of high-risk
groups would not help in increasing diagnosis rates, the researchers said.
- The infected women were also much more likely to return
for follow-up treatment after they were tested at the antenatal clinic
than sufferers who were diagnosed in sexual health clinics or other places,
the study found.
- Hepatitis does not clear up without treatment, although
drug therapy cures only around 40% of cases.
- Up to 80% of HVC infections persist and become chronic,
and a third of those people develop severe liver damage.
- Kate Grainger, spokeswoman for C Change, a group of hepatitis
C sufferers and organisations, said: "These figures do seem worrying.
There is a lack of awareness about the symptoms and we have to make sure
that when patients go to their doctors that hepatitis is considered."
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