The number of newly diagnosed cases of hepatitis C infection in England was 10% higher in 2006 than in 2005, according to latest figures released by the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
The HPA's annual report for 2007 on hepatitis C says there were 8,346 cases in 2006, and suggests that the effort to raise awareness of hepatitis C is encouraging more people to be tested.
There has been a considerable increase in the attention paid to hepatitis C over the last 12 months, says the HPA, following an NHS campaign aimed at healthcare professionals and the public, which saw visits to the NHS website (see below) and Hepatitis C Information Line more than double.
The late Dame Anita Roddick, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C and campaigned until her death to raise awareness and to encourage people to get tested, undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the increase in media coverage about hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C is contracted through contact with infected blood, and less commonly through other body fluids. However, because symptoms can be mild or even non existent for many years and sometimes decades after an individual has been infected, they are frequently missed or put down to other causes. For these reasons, hepatitis C is often referred to as the "silent epidemic".
Professor Pete Borriello, Director of the Health Protection Agency's Centre for Infections, said: "The improved public awareness we are seeing for hepatitis C represents a marked change to the position we were in just a few years ago. This is good news.
"The increase in testing and diagnosis of infection will enable more people to gain access to the appropriate treatment and help reduce some of the severe complications of hepatitis that can occur, such as liver cancer.
"However, there is no room for complacency. Despite the increase in awareness and diagnosis of hepatitis C, there is still some considerable way to go if the burden of this infection is to be reduced in the future."
Current estimates suggest that in 2003, more than 230,000 individuals in England and Wales aged 15–59 had been exposed to the virus. Deaths, transplants and hospital admissions for hepatitis C-related end stage liver disease continue to rise, and the number of people with such severe disease is predicted to increase to 2,670 by 2015.
Dr Helen Harris, a Hepatitis C expert from the HPA, said: "Injecting drug use remains the single most important risk factor for acquisition of hepatitis C infection, estimated to be responsible for more than 90% of all newly acquired infections."
A recent HPA initiative has been the development of a tool that enables PCTs and other stakeholders to calculate local and national estimates of Hepatitis C virus prevalence, and predict the likely number of individuals requiring treatment.
By looking at factors such as the prevalence of drug use, the location of prisons in the area and the ethnic makeup of local populations, this tool is intended to help health service providers plan hepatitis C services accurately.
Dr Harris says: "The predicted future burden of this disease is a real cause for concern, particularly when the true number of people in England suffering from severe hepatitis C-related liver disease is known to be under-estimated.
"National data on the numbers of people being referred and treated will be essential for ensuring equal access to high-quality care across the country."