England could be the first country in the world to eliminate Hepatitis C under ambitious plans announced by the NHS to mark this, its 70th anniversary year.
NHS leaders have announced their commitment to eliminating Hepatitis C in England at least five years earlier than the World Health Organisation goal of 2030. They are now calling on the pharmaceutical industry to work with them to provide the best value for money for treatments.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by a virus and which primarily affects the liver. People contracting the Hepatitis C virus might initially have only mild or no symptoms, but the virus persists in the liver of up to 85% of those infected. Because symptoms can be so minor, Hepatitis C can easily go undiagnosed, but over time it can lead to liver disease and, sometimes, cirrhosis of the liver.
Hepatitis C is a significant public health issue globally, accounting for around 400,000 deaths per year. Most recent figures show it affects around 160,000 people in England. The NHS has invested in fighting Hepatitis C each year as new treatments become available, to improve outcomes for people with the virus, but doctors, patient groups and NHS leaders believe it is possible to go further.
A new round of procurement for new treatments get under way this month and is the single largest medicines procurement ever undertaken by the NHS. With these new treatments coming online, NHS England expects to see more Hepatitis C patients being cured as early as October this year. More than 25,000 patients have already been treated to date and this number is expected to rise to 30,000 later this year, prioritising the sickest patients first.
New agreements between NHS England and drug companies include increased collaboration to identify more people living with Hepatitis C who need to be treated. Experts have predicted that this approach – combined with sustained NHS investment and the best new treatments being used – could lead to Hepatitis C being eradicated as a major public health concern in the very near future.
England is one of few countries in Europe where the number of patients receiving new oral treatments for Hepatitis C is already increasing year on year, enabled by deals previously agreed with industry. These deals, including “pay per cure” (where the NHS only pays when a patient is cured), and a focus on prioritising the sickest patients, have led to a 10% reduction in the number of deaths, while the number of patients needing a liver transplant has been cut by half.
Other initiatives in the campaign to eradicate Hepatitis C include:
- Creating “operational delivery networks” in each area in England – driving improvements in treatment in local areas, ensuring all patients can access the treatment they need, regardless of where they live. This will enable improvements in areas with historically low service provision.
- Establishing a National Hepatitis C patient registry, set up last year, which makes it possible to record and monitor treatment uptake, outcomes and increased diagnosis rates.
Professor Graham Foster, NHS England’s National Clinical Chair for Hepatitis C, said: “The progress made in the treatment of Hepatitis C has transformed the lives of many of my patients and has been made possible by NHS England working closely with industry to bring prices down and expand treatment options.
“Yet we have the opportunity to do so much more. Over the past seven decades, the NHS has been at the forefront of medical innovation – to be able to commit to a world first in the year of the NHS’s 70th anniversary would be another remarkable and truly historic achievement.”
Charles Gore, chief executive of national charity The Hepatitis C Trust, added: “This is wonderful news. It is exactly what is needed. The proposed deal will galvanise the action we must take to find all those living with Hepatitis C who have not yet been diagnosed so that we can cure them. It will prevent the liver cancer that Hepatitis C causes. It will save lives. In the current environment we applaud NHS England’s ambition to be a world leader.”