December 5, 2013

Hepatitis C spreading among drug users

Provided by HELSINKI TIMES

05 Dec 2013

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The emergency room at the Meilahti hospital in Helsinki.
Over 20,000 hepatitis C infections remain untreated in Finland.

Only a fraction of people infected with the liver disease are treated.

A MAJORITY of hepatitis C infections go untreated. More than 20,000 people are estimated to be living with the virus leading to liver disease but only 400 of them receive treatment each year. Kaarlo Simojoki, the chief physician of A Clinic Foundation and Kalle Jokelainen, a specialist from the Meilahti hospital, point a finger at the medical professionals, who may not have the latest information on treatment options.

Treatment is often also regarded as expensive even though prescribing antiviral medication at early stages of hepatitis C infection is a more cost-effective alternative than treating a patient with advanced disease.

“With the price of treating 300 patients with cirrhosis of the liver in an intensive care unit or giving a liver transplant to 30 patients, we could treat 2,000 patients with medicines,” explains Jokelainen.

Simojoki is in favour of treating hepatitis C while the patient is participating in a drug rehabilitation programme as this is the time when the treatment is most likely to be successful.

“If the patient’s state is likely to vary, a course of treatment that is started some months later will not usually work out. The disease is then left untreated,” says Simojoki.

In several European countries, patients receive treatment for hepatitis C within a drug rehabilitation programme, which can also serve as an incentive for the patients to stick with the hepatitis C therapy, according to Jokelainen.

“There is a stigma attached to hepatitis C and people are keen to get rid of it. Patients in rehabilitation are very motivated to receive treatment for the disease,” Jokelainen stresses.

Drug users aware of testing

The number of new infections has been on the increase since 2009, with 1,175 people testing positive for the disease last year. In the vast majority of the cases the disease had been transmitted through the shared use of syringes among injecting drug users.

A Clinic Foundation’s Vinkki Health Advice Centre in Helsinki tests users of intravenous drugs anonymously for hepatitis C. According to Tanja Sorsa, a nurse at the advice centre, clients are aware of the disease risk and the screening services offered by the centre, with requests for testing coming in every day when the service is open.

If a test is positive, the client is advised to make an appointment with a doctor.

“We explain to the client what having the infection means and how to cope with it in everyday life. We also hand out brochures on hepatitis C as the news on the infection comes as a great shock to many people,” says Sorsa.

NOORA PENTTINEN – STT
NIINA WOOLLEY – HT
LEHTIKUVA / MARTTI KAINULAINEN

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