Around 100,000 people with hepatitis C are not receiving treatment in Spain because they have no idea that they suffer from it. Because of this, associations have recently asked the Ministry of Health and the regional governments to draw up a protocol of screening for early detection, so that those at risk, and possibly the population in general, can be tested.
The fight against hepatitis C took a giant leap in this country in 2015, when the Ministry of Health approved a strategic plan to tackle the illness. Since then about 90,000 people have benefited from the latest treatments, which have a 98 per cent rate of cure.
“We are world leaders in this field, with a history of success, but we also have to bear in mind that people are still dying from this illness,” says the coordinator of the Alliance for the Elimination of Viral Hepatitis in Spain (AEHVE), Javier García-Samaniego.
There is special concern about the fact that so many people, about 50 per cent of the total, have not been diagnosed, so the Alliance is calling for a screening plan to detect the approximately 100,000 patients who are unaware that they have hepatitis C, with the aim of eradicating the illness by 2021. “If there is no screening, we can't eliminate it,” says Javier García-Samaniego.
The experts and associations who signed the letter to the Ministry of Health agree that GPs should play a principal role in screening. They also want health centres to include patients with hepatitis C in their Special Attention Service, so they take an active part in fighting the illness.
“There should be a diagnosis guide for GPs and medical centres, and we want all the regional health authorities to produce one of these as soon as possible,” says Dr José María Molero. La Rioja has become the first region of Spain to start screening patients as a matter of course.
According to epidemiological studies, between 190,000 and 220,000 people in Spain suffer from hepatitis C at present, and of these around 45 per cent (about 90,000) have already received treatment. This means that between 100,000 and 130,000 have yet to do so. Around 100,000 of them do not know that they have the illness, and the rest have not received the treatments laid down in the 2015 plan.
Experts are debating whether or not the whole population should be screened, because under the age of 35 the rate is barely 0.15 per cent. They do, however, all agree that people at risk should be given priority: prisoners, people who inject or sniff drugs, the children of mothers with hepatitis C, people who live with patients with chronic hepatitis C and men who have unsafe sex with other men. The test costs between two and three euros.