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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 December, 2004, 00:00 GMT
Liver disease drive not enough
Image of a man injecting himself
The virus can be passed by sharing needles
A 2m awareness campaign to tackle a liver disease which affects 500,000 people in the UK is too little too late, say experts.

The sum for hepatitis C is pittance compared to the 50m pledged to diseases such as HIV, say charities.

Even if it helps find the 80% of people who do not yet know they have the virus, there is not enough investment in services to treat them, they warn.

The Chief Medical Officer said the campaign was key to cutting infection rates.

There is a real danger that this will identify patients for whom there are no resources to treat them.
Professor Graham Foster, consultant hepatologist at The Royal London Hospital

Sir Liam Donaldson said the money would be used over the next two years to raise awareness about hepatitis C through measures such as posters and leaflets in GP surgeries.

There is also a new hepatitis C telephone information line (0800 451451) which will give confidential, personal and sensitive one-to-one advice and information, alongside the NHS hepatitis C awareness website - www.hepc.nhs.uk.

According to the Hepatitis C Trust, official figures suggest about 250,000 people have hepatitis C, of whom about 40,000 have been diagnosed.

However, experts and charities believe closer to 500,000 have the virus.

In most cases, the initial infection does not cause any symptoms and is said to be silent. Some people can have the virus for 20 years or more before they realise anything is wrong.

The virus is carried in the blood, and people with the infection can pass it on if their blood gets under the skin or into the bloodstream of another person.

'Very late'

Examples of how this might happen include intravenous drug users sharing syringes, or a surgeon with the infection who is cut while carrying out an operation, with the blood getting into the patient's wound.

It can also be passed on through sexual contact, as the virus can be present in bodily fluids such as semen.

Early identification is important because, when caught early, the disease can be treated to prevent later liver conditions such as cancer and cirrhosis developing.

It's a rather toe-in-the-water approach.
Alison Rogers, chief executive of the British Liver Trust

Sir Liam said: "Hepatitis C has emerged as an significant public health challenge over recent years, which is why we need to intensify efforts to prevent new cases and to diagnose and treat those who are already infected.

"That is why this new 'FaCe It' campaign is so essential.

"It will be key in to raising awareness about the virus and reducing the number of people who are infected in the future."

Professor Graham Foster, consultant hepatologist at The Royal London Hospital, welcomed the new campaign but said much more needed to be done.

"In my view it's very little, very late."

He said most other countries in the developing world had taken action a decade ago and had backed it with money for liver services.

"What we have is a rather belated publicity campaign which is not associated with increased funding or improvements in liver services.

"There is a real danger that this will identify patients for whom there are no resources to treat them."

He was also concerned about the timing of the campaign.

Being close to Christmas and around the same time as large public health campaigns, he said it could go unnoticed.

"My fear is that this is a low-key campaign that is unlikely to have the beneficial effects that are needed," he said.

Charles Gore of the Hepatitis C Trust echoed his concerns.

"As well as the small resources, the timing of it suggests this is not a priority to the government.

"It's sending out a message that people with hepatitis C do not matter," he said.

Alison Rogers from the British Liver Trust said: "It's laudable in as far as it goes but it's a rather toe-in-the-water approach.

"The government has been a long time in announcing its action plan and its action plan is very modest in its objectives."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Many of those infected do not know they have Hepatitis C



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