Portuguese society calls for hepatitis C testing at least once in a lifetime

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The Portuguese Society of Gastroenterology today recommended that all people be tested for hepatitis C at least once in their lives, recalling the importance of Portugal achieving the goal of eliminating the disease by 2030.

Speaking to the Lusa agency about World Hepatitis Day, which is marked on Friday, the president of the Portuguese Society of Gastroenterology (SPG), Pedro Figueiredo, said that estimates point to the existence of about 40,000 Portuguese with the undiagnosed hepatitis virus.

“Hepatitis C is a silent disease, that’s why there are [so many cases] undiagnosed, and the possibility that hepatitis evolves into more serious situations of liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, over a few decades, (…) exists. If it is not diagnosed in time and treated, this evolution can happen”, he explained.

What is recommended – he continued – “is that people get tested, including through general and family medicine, at least once in their lives”.

The expert recalled that many of the people who end up showing altered liver function test results at gastroenterology appointments shared needles as teenagers or young adults.

“Then they rebuilt their lives and didn’t keep up their drug habits. It’s only many years later when they go to their GP and, for whatever reason, they get their liver tested and that test draws attention to the possibility of a hepatitis C virus infection,” he added.

Pedro Figueiredo stressed the importance of early detection of the infection, stressing that hepatitis C, in more than 97% of cases, is curable.

“Today, with an oral treatment in tablets for 8 to 12 weeks, (…) we manage in more than 97% of cases to eliminate the hepatitis virus,” he said.

Asked if he believes Portugal has the conditions to eliminate the hepatitis c virus by 2030 – the goal set by the World Health Organization – Pedro Figueiredo, who is also director of the gastroenterology service at the Coimbra University Hospital Center, said that with the “growing awareness of people” and action aimed at populations such as drug addicts and prisoners, the country can meet this goal.

“If we can also reach these populations, (…) I think maybe we can achieve that goal of eliminating hepatitis C by 2030 in Portugal,” he said.

Regarding access to medication, he said that there is no difficulty and recalled that months ago it was necessary to register the medication on a portal, but even that requirement has disappeared.

He said that if someone takes a week or two to start treatment, since the person will have been infected for dozens of years, this will not be a problem.

“People who have chronic hepatitis C usually (…) have often had the disease for many years. So even if there is a two or three week delay in the supply of the medicine in your health institution, that is not going to change anything”, he assured.

The period of time that makes a difference is the time between infection and diagnosis, he stressed.

Pedro Figueiredo explained that hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can be caused by various agents, such as toxic ones – for example, when eating some wild mushrooms picked from the hill.

“There are other causes [of hepatitis], related to taking medication, autoimmunity or metabolic diseases, or hepatitis caused by viruses (A, B, C, D and E),” he explained, stressing that the most important are C and B. The others are less frequent and do not cause such serious illness.

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