THE number of people diagnosed with Hepatitis C in the Lothians has reached record levels.
A total of 333 people were diagnosed with the condition last year – more than twice as many as a decade ago.
Cases have risen from 276 in 2010, and 202 in 2009.
Health experts welcomed the news, however, and said it proved that efforts to increase awareness and testing for the illness were paying off.
The spread of Hepatitis C has been called the Silent Epidemic, because sufferers can in some cases have virtually no symptoms for up to a decade. Early symptoms, which include depression, fatigue, skin problems, insomnia, pain and digestive disorders, are also often misattributed to other causes.
Twenty per cent of sufferers clear the virus from the body within six months of infection, but the rest develop a long-term condition which can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or end-stage liver disease.
In February, patients in the Lothians were among the first to be offered the option of two new drugs which it is hoped will help cure more people.
A scheme last summer also put up posters in pub and club toilets across the Capital warning of the dangers of hepatitis C, explaining how the disease can be caught, and advertising support groups.
There are more than 3700 people living in the Lothians who are known to have Hep C but Scottish officer for the Hepatitis C Trust, Petra Wright, said the true figure for infections was probably double the official figures.
She said the rise in reported cases was partly down to the introduction of testing at drug outreach projects in 2009, and the introduction last year of the Scottish Government’s Sexual Health and Blood Borne Viruses Framework.
“We welcome the increase, because it shows that the action plan is working,” she said.
“We can also see that they’re diagnosing a lot of people in the younger age groups of 40 and under, and that shows the targeted testing is working, but more needs to be done to get the Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, who’ve been at risk in the past, tested.”
The best-known risk factor for Hepatitis C infection is intravenous drug use, but steroid users and those who have had tattoos done abroad or at unlicensed events are also at risk.
Hepatitis C, along with HIV, is the subject of the public inquiry being carried out by Lord Penrose into patients who were infected by NHS blood products.
Dr Ewan Stewart, lead clinician for NHS Lothian-led Viral Hepatitis Managed Care Network (MCN), said: “These figures reflect the hard work going on across Lothian to raise awareness of Hepatitis C as well as making it easier for people to get tested.
“The Lothian Viral Hepatitis MCN works closely with GPs and other key healthcare workers to identify those at risk of the infection, promotes testing in community and prison settings and provides easy access testing clinics.
“We know that Hepatitis C can have serious consequences if it is not diagnosed and treated. It is important to speak with a healthcare professional if you are worried about Hep C.”
Further information and support is available from C Plus on 0131-478 7929 or Waverley Care on 0131-558 1425.
‘It’s easy to have and not know’
ANDREW Orr was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2006. The foreman joiner contracted the disease from sharing needles when he was younger and taking heroin.
He began to notice his concentration and stamina failing, and although he suspected he might have contracted hepatitis, he was reluctant to go to the doctor about it. But his “brain fog”, as he describes it, got so bad that he went straight to hospital, where a blood test showed he had hepatitis C.
He was told that if he had left it another year, his liver would have been so badly damaged that treatment wouldn’t have worked, and he would probably have been dead in five years.
Mr Orr, from Bo’ness, is now clear of the disease, but the repair of his liver is a gradual process.
He said: “The main problem is that there can be no symptoms. Some people can turn yellow and have real physical signs. For me, it was a lack of concentration, like having a brain fog.
“You know there’s something wrong, even if there are no outward signs. That is why people should get tested because it’s easy to have it and not know.”
ON THE RISE
Number of people diagnosed in Lothian each year (rate per 100,000 of population)
2001: 150 (19.3)
2009: 202 (24.7)
2010: 276 (33)
2011: 333 (39.8)
Scotland 2011: 2147 (41.1)