People dying from ignorance of treatment for hepatitis C
People are suffering and dying needlessly because they are misinformed about a disease that is among the top five causes of premature death, research has found.
Just 15pc of people know what hepatitis C is, according to a survey which has uncovered worrying misconceptions about the disease.
Almost one third (30pc) of adults incorrectly believe hepatitis C can be spread by the saliva of an infected person and 25pc would avoid close contact with someone carrying the disease despite the fact it is not spread by casual contact.
Hepatitis C affects between 30,000 and 50,000 Irish adults but experts believe this figure is likely to be even higher because there are no symptoms in three out of four cases. This makes it difficult to get a true reflection of the number of people carrying the virus, which causes liver disease.
Dr Jack Lambert, a consultant and specialist in infectious diseases at the Mater and Rotunda hospitals, said further education is vital to prevent the disease from spreading.
"About 750 people got treatment for hepatitis C last year," he said. "Of those, only 25pc were people who had a history of injecting drug use. Most of the people who access treatment are high-functioning people looking for treatment.
"The educated people show up for treatment. Those who are not as educated (about hepatitis C) are not showing up for treatment because we are not getting the message out to those people."
He said this would be more valuable than the €30m the Government has invested to treat it.
The hepatitis C virus that causes the disease is transmitted through contact with infected blood. It is often associated with drug addicts who have shared needles but other drug users often present with the disease.
"When they put it up their nose and sniff it, those products can be contaminated as well," said Dr Lambert. It can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby and through medical equipment that has not been sterilised properly.
A survey carried out by RED C on behalf of American pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences found a huge stigma associated with the disease. More than half (57pc) of people do not know the disease is curable and 62pc said they associate a hepatitis C diagnosis with shame.
"It used to be very difficult to treat but now it is just 12 weeks of tablets you take every day and the cure is almost 100pc now," Dr Lambert said.
Nicola Perry, chair of the Hepatitis C Partnership, which is a support group for people with the disease, said the stigma makes it more difficult to cope with the disease.
She added: "Individuals can be afraid to get tested and diagnosed or to seek care and access to treatment. This is worrying as it may have serious knock-on effects, including transmission risks."