The HSE is to launch a pilot scheme for an online hepatitis C testing service, after awarding a contract worth €245,000 to a UK-based company to operate the programme.
A total of 420 cases of hepatitis C were notified to the Health Protection and Surveillance Centre (HPSC) in Ireland last year, a rise of 94 on 2020, despite the number of cases notified annually generally being on a downward curve.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection, which causes inflammation of the liver. It is also listed as a major cause of serious liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person.
The HSE said it is estimated that at least 50%-60% of people with hepatitis C in Ireland are not aware of they have the condition. Since 2015, the national programme for hepatitis C treatment has provided care to over 6,000 people, with cure rates in excess of 95%.
The pilot project will see the creation of a system for ordering and delivery of hepatitis C tests, with a minimum of 1,000 tests to be included in the pilot. Once the test has been completed, the person will send it back to be analysed and then given their result. If needed, they will be referred on for further treatment.
The HSE said it would examine the pilot and its impact, acceptability and cost effectiveness when integrated with existing public treatment sites. One of its key objectives is improving access to hepatitis C testing through the availability of free home-testing kits.
It awarded the contract to SH:24 CIC, a London-based firm, which also operates the HSE’s online, sexually-transmitted-infection (STI) testing service.
The health service awarded an extension of this contract worth €1.2m to SH:24 late last year without a prior call for competition, as a move to address a “genuine emergency” to public health arising from a national syphilis outbreak.
Alongside the awarding of the new hepatitis C testing contract, the company has also been given a contract worth a potential €25m over five years for the continuation of the online STI testing service.
The HSE said: “Ireland continues to experience increasing rates of sexually transmitted infection.
“The availability of online STI testing has been shown to improve access to STI testing and move those with less complex care needs out of clinical services, allowing for more appropriate use of clinic time and resources.”
Meanwhile, investigations are still ongoing into the hepatitis outbreak that has affected Ireland, parts of Europe and the US in recent months.
“To date no single virus has been identified in the cases,” the HPSC said.