Nurses urging people to get screened for silent virus

Two new specialist nurses are urging people to get checked out if they think they may have exposed themselves to a silent killer.

Clare Robinson and Richard Russell

Clare Robinson and Richard Russell are Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Foundation Trust’s (NLaG) new hepatitis C clinical nurse specialists covering Scunthorpe and Grimsby hospitals.

Many people live with hepatitis C for decades without even knowing they have the blood-borne virus. However, if it is left untreated it can cause liver damage, liver failure, cancer and death.

Clare, whose background is in nursing in mental health, prisons and drug and alcohol services, said: “Traditionally hepatitis C has been a bit of a taboo subject, as it is associated with intravenous drug use. However, there are many ways in which people can become infected.”

It is contracted through infected blood. You can catch it if you have had tattoos using dirty needles, have engaged in unprotected high-risk sexual behaviour, had a blood transfusion before 1991, been a recipient of blood products before 1986, shared needles for drug use, or shared such things as razors or toothbrushes – anything which can lead to the transfer of blood.

Clare said: “We need to break down the stigma often attached to the virus as there is nothing to be ashamed of. What is important is that people get checked out if they think they may have put themselves at risk.”

The virus can affect someone and take decades to develop, sometimes as long as 30 years, before it makes its presence really known in the form of cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.

Clare said: “Unfortunately people are not being referred to us at the earliest opportunity and often develop more complications as a result. It is so important that we raise awareness as this virus is treatable.”

Richard, who worked as a community nurse before joining NLaG two years ago in endoscopy, said: “The role is challenging as we work with some patients who have a chaotic lifestyle. The aim is to build a rapport with people, and make sure they take the full course of their medication.”

Historically treatment was very different to today. Richard said: “Patients used to have to have regular injections over a course of either six or 12 months, which made them look and feel very poorly.”

Richard said: “Today however, we are using direct acting antivirals which is one tablet a day for eight to 12 weeks, with minor side effects. The other big difference is that it is 95 per cent effective in curing the virus.”

Both Clare and Richard are urging people to get screened if they think they may be at risk, or have put themselves at risk previously. Richard said: “If we can raise awareness, we can treat people and eliminate the virus.”

The signs and symptoms of the virus include:
• Tiredness
• Depression
• Loss of appetite
• Mood swings
• Headaches
• Flu-like symptoms
• Bloating
• Nausea
• Joint and muscle pain
• Itchy skin and jaundice.

Clare said: “The symptoms are so subtle that unless patients are screened for hepatitis C it goes undiagnosed. It is sometimes only once symptoms of liver failure start to appear, which can take decades, that people realise they are ill.
“It is now easy to treat, there is a 95 per cent cure rate and if we work together with patients and those who think have put themselves at risk in the past, then we can eliminate the virus.”

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