I am advised that the figure of 200,000 persons in the UK is probably derived from an estimated national prevalence rate of 0.4% in the population of 60 million.
The prevalence of HCV infection in the general population in Ireland is probably quite low, lying somewhere between 0.03% and 1.4%. Some high risk groups, such as intravenous drug users, have extremely high rates of up to 81% to 92% prevalence. The risk of acquiring hepatitis C increases with the length of an injecting career. A survey of short-term injectors showed 52% anti-HCV positive. Other groups with increased risk include homeless people at 18% and sex workers at 8%. About 1,600 people are infected within the State by blood and blood products.
Under an amendment to the Infectious Diseases Regulations 1981 introduced on 1 January, hepatitis C is now a notifiable disease. In addition, laboratory directors are now also required to report infectious diseases. These changes should enhance the information available in Ireland on the epidemiology of hepatitis C by improving the comprehensiveness and quality of notified data.
I understand from the ERHA that drug treatment centres in the region have a policy of offering testing for HIV and hepatitis A, B and C to patients who present for treatment of their addiction. The drug treatment centres' policy of viral screening, including hepatitis, forms part of the general medical assessment for those entering treatment. It has contributed significantly to the ongoing education of this high risk group in terms of prevention and early treatment intervention.
I am also informed that, in 1994, the drug treatment centre board established a dedicated hepatitis C clinic on a sessional basis and these services were extended in 2000. Attendances at the clinic have risen from 960 in 2000 to approximately 1,387 in 2002. The dedicated clinic offers assessment, testing, education and support to persons with hepatitis C and, where appropriate, referral to a hospital setting for treatment. The service was augmented in 2003 by the establishment of a pilot programme for the treatment of hepatitis C patients within a drug treatment setting. The early indications suggest that treatment outcomes are comparable to hospital based treatment settings.
Recently I launched an information booklet, hepatitis C — Guide for Drug Users and their Families, which was published by the DTCB. The booklet provides a comprehensive easy to read guide for individuals and families affected by hepatitis C. It will also be of value to general practitioners and other professionals working in the area of substance misuse and its associated health risks.
The recipient tracing unit of the Irish Blood Transfusion Service has operated a tracing programme since 1994 to identify recipients of infectious or potentially infectious blood or blood products. Persons identified as having been infected by blood or blood products administered within the State are provided with a Health (Amendment) Act card. It entitles them to a range of free health services. A number of publications have also been developed for this cohort. I have no plans to carry out hepatitis C screening in the general population in view of the low prevalence of the disease.