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Thousands of people may have unknowingly contracted hepatitis C abroad, health experts warn

People are being urged to take a free hepatitis C test amid fears thousands may have unknowingly contracted the disease abroad.

While NHS bosses hope it will be wiped out in England by 2025, some 70,000 adults may still have the disease without realising, according to healthcare company Preventx.

The blood-borne virus can be picked up through dental, cosmetic, or health procedures, or via tattoos and piercings, it added.

This can happen when equipment is not sterilised or hygiene measures are not followed – but also through sharing domestic items like razors and toothbrushes.

It can often take years to produce any symptoms, but can later cause muscle aches, fever, tiredness, loss of appetite, stomach ache, and feeling sick.

Due to many of these symptoms being common to other illnesses, like flu, the NHS says the only way to be sure you don’t have the disease is to take a test.

Left untreated, it can lead to life-threatening conditions like liver cancer or liver failure.

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Man’s ‘shock’ at unexpected diagnosis

New research by Preventx suggests more than two-thirds of people don’t know much about hepatitis C, with 70% unaware it spreads via blood-to-blood contact.

More than three-quarters don’t know it can be contracted from having a tattoo or piercing, and a similar number do not realise you can live with it for years without any signs, according to a survey.

Patient Mo Goolamallee, 55, was only diagnosed in January 2023 – 25 years after he is thought to have caught it following emergency medical treatment in Sri Lanka.

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The father-of-one, then 30, spent two months in a hospital in the country after a motorbike accident.

He said he was “shocked” when he tested positive in hospital earlier this year after an accident at the gym.

“I wish I’d known back then about the risk of hepatitis C from medical treatment overseas,” he said.

“What I’ve found really hard since being diagnosed is the stigma and lack of understanding about hepatitis C.

“Lots of people think it just affects people who use drugs. I’ve had people mix it up with HIV and all kinds of things.

“We need to make more people aware of the virus and get more people to test.”

Mo Goolamallee was diagnosed with hepatitis C 25 years after a motorbike accident
Image:
Mo Goolamallee was diagnosed with hepatitis C 25 years after a motorbike accident

How to get a test

Anyone over 18 in England can get a free test delivered to their home via the NHS.

It involves a finger prick, with a small blood sample dropped into a test tube and sent off for laboratory analysis.

Sexual health clinics, drug treatment services, and GPs also offer testing, and the NHS says early diagnosis and treatment are key to preventing liver damage and ensuring the infection isn’t passed on.

While there is no vaccine for the disease, there are simple treatments available, including tablets.

Using the latest medicines, the NHS says more than 90% of hepatitis C patients may be cured.

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