Tests offered over fears of disease link to ‘wayward’ years

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HEALTH chiefs have warned that hundreds of middle-aged people in Yorkshire may unwittingly be carrying a potentially serious liver disease as a result of their wayward youth.

East Riding Council has linked up with the Hepatitis C Trust to offer testing for people who may not realise they are at risk of hepatitis B or C.

Up to a fifth of drug users who use needle exchanges in the East Riding have been found to have Hepatitis C.

But there are fears that hundreds of other people, now aged in their 40s and 50s, who may have injected drugs for a short time in their youth do not realise they are carrying the disease.

The testing also aims to raise awareness among immigrants from central and eastern Europe and south Asia, where both diseases are more widespread.

The Hepatitis C Trust’s outreach and testing van will be visiting The Courtyard at Goole next Tuesday when people can take a confidential test.

The van will also visit York, Scunthorpe and Grimsby on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday respectively. Locations include day centres, drug and alcohol services, hostels and mosques.

Other testings will take place at mosques in Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax later in November.

East Riding Council’s substance misuse manager, Tony Margetts, said: “One of the features of Hepatitis C is that it is asymptomatic for 20 to 30 years.

“The group we are worried about is people who have had a wayward youth, who may have been injecting, gone off the rails at university and then lived blameless lives since and simply don’t know they have the disease.”

If left untreated, the blood-borne virus can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. Having the disease and drinking alcohol is particularly dangerous.

Mr Margetts said: “Some people get the illness and 20 to 30 years down the road it kills them, while some become mildly ill.”

The lack of needle exchanges in central and eastern European countries and poor treatment services have led to an epidemic of Hepatitis C among intravaneous drug users.

Mr Margetts said that translated into a slightly higher risk for a drug user coming to this country.

Hepatitis B is also more common among eastern and central Europeans and people from south Asia, where the disease is sometimes passed from mother to child, or through the use of unsterile medical equipment.

Mr Margetts said: “It would be helpful to raise awareness of hepatitis in migrant communities and start doing some testing to see how much there is. We don’t really know how big a problem it is.”

Shabana Begum, who works part-time for the Hepatitis C Trust as the south Asian officer, based in West Yorkshire, said there was still a lack of knowledge about the disease.

She said a major factor was culture - in Islamic tradition babies’ heads are shaved and little boys are also circumcised. The disease could be transmitted if the razor or scissors had been used previously on an adult and had not been sterilised. Ms Begum contracted Hepatitis C from a contaminated needle on a trip to Pakistan when she was 13, but was cured of the disease when she was finally diagnosed in her mid 30s, after a course of chemotherapy.

She said: “People don’t actually know what Hepatitis C is or that there’s a treatment for it. There is definitely a lack of knowledge, but we are working hard to raise awareness.”

The Health Protection Agency estimate that there are about 250,000 hepatitis C positive people in the UK, although some estimates put the number as high as 466,000. Only about 70,000 people in England and Wales have been diagnosed.

For more information about the screening van in Yorkshire, visit www.hepctrust.org.uk/testingvan or call the trust on its helpline on 0845 223 4424.