Many UK Women May
Harbor Fatal Hep C Virus
By Maxine Frith
Almost one in a hundred women in the UK may be infected with the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus, according to a study published yesterday.
The worrying rate of infection has prompted experts to call for a national screening programme of pregnant women.
Antenatal screening for the hepatitis C virus (HCV) could lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment and reduce long-term complications of the disease, such as liver damage and cancer, said the study, published in the medical journal Gut.
About 400,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with hepatitis C, but many more may unknowingly have the virus and show no symptoms. It is transmitted sexually or through blood, with injecting drug users and people who have tattoos or body piercings with unsterilised equipment at increased risk of infection.
Hepatitis C is one of the most serious forms of the virus and if left untreated, can cause permanent liver damage, cancer of the liver and death.
Researchers for the study tested more than 4,000 pregnant women for HCV when they went for their first antenatal appointment at St Mary's Hospital in London between 1997 and 1999.
They found that 0.8% tested positive for hepatitis C infection - and that two-thirds of those who were positive did not know they were infected.
Although women who had used illegal drugs were significantly more likely to test positive, three quarters of those newly diagnosed had no obvious risk factors.
This showed that "targeted screening" of high-risk groups would not help in increasing diagnosis rates, the researchers said.
The infected women were also much more likely to return for follow-up treatment after they were tested at the antenatal clinic than sufferers who were diagnosed in sexual health clinics or other places, the study found.
Hepatitis does not clear up without treatment, although drug therapy cures only around 40% of cases.
Up to 80% of HVC infections persist and become chronic, and a third of those people develop severe liver damage.
Kate Grainger, spokeswoman for C Change, a group of hepatitis C sufferers and organisations, said: "These figures do seem worrying. There is a lack of awareness about the symptoms and we have to make sure that when patients go to their doctors that hepatitis is considered."

This Site Served by TheHostPros