Photo by Martha Dominguez de Guveia (2017).

A new pilot conducted by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) promises treatment for thousands of people suffering from Hepatitis C through AI-based screening, adding to the hope of eliminating the disease by 2030. 

The new scheme, which will begin next month, could help up to 80,000 people unknowingly living with Hep C to get a life-saving diagnosis and treatment sooner, according to a press release of the NHS. 

The NHS will identify people who might have the virus by using AI to search health records for a number of crucially Hepatitis C risk factors, such as historic blood transfusions or those with HIV. Persons identified through the new screening process will then be invited for a review by their GP, and if appropriate, further screening for Hepatitis C.

Those who test positive for the virus will be treated with cures made available after the NHS England struck a deal with three major pharmaceutical companies.

Running until Spring 2023, the pilot will use a Patient Search Identification (PSI) software developed for free by pharmaceutical firm MSD as part of a deal struck in 2019.

Battling the spread of Hepatitis C

The latest UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data estimates 81,000 people in Britain currently have the blood-borne virus, which infects the liver and if left untreated can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage, leading to cirrhosis, possible liver failure and cancer – as well as a risk of spreading the disease to others.

The NHS has an ambitious plan to eliminate chronic Hepatitis C before the global goal of 2030 set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

To boost screening, staff are also now visiting at-risk communities in specially equipped trucks to test for the virus and carry out liver health checks involving an on-the-spot fibrosis scan which detects liver damage.

To date, the NHS program has doubled testing rates, helped 65,000 people to access treatment, reduced deaths from Hepatitis C by over one third and cut the number of liver transplants needed for patients with Hepatitis C by more than half.

“Potentially saving thousands of lives”

Professor Graham Foster, National Clinical Chair for the NHS England’s Hepatitis C Elimination Programmes, said: “This pilot marks a significant step forward in our fight to eliminate chronic Hepatitis C in England by 2030 by enabling the NHS to use new software to identify and test patients most at risk from the virus – potentially saving thousands of lives.

“Hepatitis C can be a fatal disease which affects tens of thousands across the country but with unlimited access to NHS treatments, innovative patient finding initiatives such as this one, community outreach projects such as liver trucks to detect liver damage on the spot – we will continue to boost the life chances of thousands of patients by catching the virus even earlier”.

Rachel Halford, chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, said: “There has been brilliant work to expand testing in a wide range of settings in recent years but we have not yet seen the advances we need to see in primary care.

“The roll-out of this screening programm is therefore another crucial step towards achieving elimination”.

As part of a national campaign, community vans and specialist teams are also visiting drug and alcohol services, probation services and prisons, places of worship and community clinics and support groups.

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