Revealing the hidden toll of killer disease

Volunteers from the Hepatitis C Trust at the roadshow in Tudor Square, Sheffield, with Sue Harrison, far left, and nurse consultant Ray Poll, second from right
Volunteers from the Hepatitis C Trust at the roadshow in Tudor Square, Sheffield, with Sue Harrison, far left, and nurse consultant Ray Poll, second from right
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For more than 30 years, Sue Harrison lived with hepatitis C, completely unaware that she was carrying the potentially deadly virus.

The retired teacher, from Totley in Sheffield, experienced a range of symptoms, but never realised she was suffering from a disease which claims the lives of tens of thousands of people around the world annually - until she was given a blood test while staying in North Cyprus.

“If you need medical treatment over there they do routine blood screening, and when the results came back it said I had tested positive for hepatitis C,” said Sue, now 63.

“I was absolutely devastated. There’s a lot of stigma about it, because you can catch it through injecting drugs, but there are lots of other ways that you can catch it too.”

For Sue, the source of her hepatitis was traced back to 1976, when she was given contaminated blood-clotting factor in hospital.

“I did have symptoms but it’s very difficult to pinpoint, because they’re things like night sweats and irritable bowel syndrome. Even though I had treatment for various things nobody thought about hepatitis C and, to be honest, neither did I.”

According to figures from the Health Protection Agency, there are an estimated 2,083 people in Sheffield who have the strain of hepatitis.

The Hepatitis C Trust charity says less than half of these people are likely to have been diagnosed, and only around three per cent of those with the virus receive treatment each year.

Last week a roadshow visited Sheffield called Hepatitis C: Talk, Test, Treat, to help uncover the hidden cases.

Members of the public were able to undertake a ‘risk screener’ and, if needed, a confidential test on site.

Ray Poll, who is a nurse consultant for viral hepatitis at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, said: “It is common that many people live with hepatitis C without ever realising because they often don’t have symptoms.

“Treatment is less effective if the infection is diagnosed late, and therefore it is imperative that we diagnose people as early as possible to maximise the chance of a cure. I am a strong believer in screening as many people as we can.”

Hepatitis means ‘inflammation of the liver’, and there are five different strains, but hepatitis B and C are considered the most severe.

If left untreated, the disease can cause cirrhosis of the liver, ravaging the vital organ with scars, and links have also been made to cancer.

Factors which can leave people vulnerable to hepatitis C include receiving a blood donation or organ transplant before 1992, current or past drug use, having tattoos or piercings with unsterilised equipment and higher-risk sexual behaviour.

Sue said: “However you have caught it, if you’ve got hepatitis C your liver could be very damaged and you need to have treatment.”

Following her diagnosis in 2008, Sue was given weekly injections of interferon, which helps the immune system to work properly, along with tablets to take twice a day.

She then endured a nerve-wracking six-month wait to find out if the virus had been cleared from her body, which it was - some carriers are unable ever to clear the illness.

“I’m completely healthy now, and fitter than I have been for a very long time,” she said.

“I know that if I had relapsed and the virus had come back I would have started treatment as quickly as the hospital would have allowed me to. I was very lucky in Sheffield because the department at the Hallamshire is amazing. The staff are very supportive.”

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No vaccine available for deadly virus

Hepatitis C is an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. Most infected people have no symptoms, and go undiagnosed until liver damage shows up during medical tests.

The strain is one of several hepatitis viruses and is generally considered to be among the most serious. Hepatitis C is passed through contact with contaminated blood. Up to 85 per cent of people who are initially infected fail to eliminate the virus and become chronically infected.

When signs and symptoms do occur, they are generally mild and flu-like, such as fatigue, fever, nausea or poor appetite, muscle and joint pains, and tenderness in the area of the liver.

The most common treatments for hepatitis C are antiviral drugs. In severe cases a liver transplant may be needed. But a diagnosis does not necessarily mean that treatment is needed, especially if a patient has only slight liver abnormalities. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.