A health board in Scotland has claimed to be the first region in the world to “effectively eliminate” hepatitis C.
NHS Tayside, one of 14 NHS Scotland boards, started pioneering efforts to tackle the blood-borne virus in 2012.
After targeting people who inject drugs — an approach the health board developed because 90 per cent of hepatitis C infections occur when people share needles — NHS Tayside said it has now eradicated the virus.
This comes four years ahead of the Scottish government’s target to eradicate hepatitis C by 2024.
Around 20,000 people in Scotland have the chronic viral infection, which causes progressive damage to the liver.
Lorna Birse-Stewart, chair of Tayside NHS Board, said it was “the first region in the world to effectively eliminate the virus”.
She added: “It is testament to the work of the teams involved and, as a board, we are very proud of them.”
NHS Tayside did not reference LGBT+ people in its approach to tackling hepatitis C, but it spreads through the same networks as HIV among gay and bisexual men, according to a recent study reported by Aidsmap.
“The study investigators conclude that awareness of hepatitis C transmission routes should be promoted among gay and bisexual men, through PrEP clinics, social networking apps and sex-on-premises venues,” said Aidsmap, an HIV-related news website.
NHS Tayside’s approach to eradicating the virus, in collaboration with the University of Dundee, saw it eschew standard treatments — which wait for people to stop using drugs before offering them treatment — in favour of offering people at risk of infection help immediately.
This helps prevent the spread of the virus. The approach was made possible by challenging previous thinking that the lives of people who inject drugs are too chaotic to allow for the sort of sustained treatment that hepatitis C needs to achieve a cure, according to consultant hepatologist and gastroenterologist Prof John Dillon.
Dillon said that the disease consumes significant NHS resources, adding: “However, our view was that with the right approach, supported with appropriate resources, we could tackle what is a very significant problem and reduce the rates of hepatitis C infection.
“If you can offer treatment at a very early stage, while people who are infected are still actively injecting, when they have contact with other people who inject and share equipment with other people, their chances of transmission disappear because they’re not infected any more.”
The project began in a Dundee needle exchange and then expanded.
Scotland’s public health minister Joe FitzPatrick said: “NHS Tayside should be congratulated and recognised for this achievement.
“The Scottish government remains committed to the elimination of hepatitis C in Scotland by 2024, and we will now work closely with NHS Tayside to understand how their achievement can be replicated in other regions across Scotland.”