Thursday 19 September 2019

Concern that HSE won't meet its 2026 Hepatitis C eradication target

Jim Breslin. Picture: Tom Burke
Jim Breslin. Picture: Tom Burke
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Concerns have been raised that the HSE won’t meet it’s 2026 target for effectively eliminating Hepatitis C in Ireland.

It came as the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) quizzed senior Department of Health and HSE officials on the treatment programme for the disease.

Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell raised her fears that the HSE won’t meet the 2026 target for eradicating the illness. 

She said that if there’s an estimated 30,000 patients and plans to treat 1,800-a-year the deadline wouldn’t be met unless there was a doubling of resources or work.

She suggested that more easily treated patients which she described as “the low hanging fruit” have been targeted first.

She said the cohort of patients who will be hardest to reach will be those who have become infected through intravenous drug use as they “tend to lead chaotic lifestyles”.

Ms O’Connell said such patients do adhere to treatment regimes when they’re in methadone treatment programmes.

Prof Aiden McCormick from the National Hepatitis C Treatment Programme said that a recent study has suggests that the number of patients is closer to 20,000.

He agreed that the “low hanging fruit” - people who will attend clinics - have been targeted first.

But he also said the HSE is increasing Hepatitis C treatment services in the community including for people who are on methadone.

He said there has been a “huge positive uptake on that”.

Later Mr McCormick said that up to 2,000 Hepatitis C patients will be treated next year and added: “the fact that we’re now implementing Slaintecare - we’re moving treatment out of the hospitals, into the community - I think we’re going to eradicate this before 2026.”

Independent TD Catherine Connolly asked Mr McCormick what he was basing this prediction on.

He said he hopes the target will be met because services are being ramped up. Mr McCormick said the community treatment programmes that have been established have “over-performed”.

Earlier the PAC was told that the tribunal set up to compensate patients who became infected with Hepatitis C or HIV through contaminated blood products has cost more than €1.1bn.

Department of Health secretary general Jim Breslin said the infection of people through the blood supply was “a tragedy of immense proportions”.

He said it has caused “great pain and suffering to many people”.

Around 1,700 people became infected with Hepatitis C or HIV through infected blood products over the period up to 1994.

The Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal – which is independent of the Department of Health - was set up to compensate these individuals.

In 2002, the Hepatitis C Compensation Tribunal’s remit was extended to include HIV and to allow for claims by dependents of people who had been infected.

Mr Breslin said the Tribunal has been hearing claims continuously since 1996 and has made 3,569 awards up to the end of 2017.

Costs at that time, including awards, legal fees and administrative costs came to €1.18bn.

Mr Breslin outlined a range of actions have been taken to assure the safety of the blood supply since the infections were discovered.

He said Hepatitis C is a “very serious disease” and the public health risk involved is much wider than the issue of those who were infected through the blood supply.

He said of the up to 30,000 people in Ireland infected with the Hepatitis C virus, with over half of these cases undiagnosed.

It is also estimated that over 70pc of people with hepatitis C are, or have been, intravenous drug users.

In 2015 the HSE established a national treatment programme for people with Hepatitis C.

Mr Breslin said that although treatment was in place for patients before 2015, it tended to be local, without consistency of approach and outcome measurement was fragmented.

He said the National Hepatitis C Treatment Programme is a multi-annual public health plan, to treat all people with Hepatitis C in Ireland, irrespective of the source of infection.

The programme has received €30 million in annual funding since 2015.

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