Almost ten percent of all new hepatitis C cases diagnosed in Scotland last year were people living in the North-east.
The latest figures from Health Protection Scotland reveal 145 new cases of the virus were identified in Grampian during 2016, taking the total number of people living with a hepatitis C diagnosis in the region to 4,163.
Hepatitis C, along with hepatitis B and HIV are classified as blood borne viruses (BBV) which can be passed from an infected person on to others via blood to blood contact.
The infection can be spread through sharing equipment used to inject drugs, sharing razors or toothbrushes, skin puncture from contaminated sharp instruments such as tattoo or body piercing equipment, from blood transfusions in the UK prior to September 1991, from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby, and through unprotected sex.
While the virus can cause flu like symptoms when it first infects the body, people with hepatitis C often do not have any noticeable symptoms until their liver has been significantly damaged many years later, meaning many people have the infection without realising it.
NHS Grampian consultant, Dr Lindsay McLeman, said: “Anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to the Hepatitis C virus can be tested with a simple blood test or finger prick test. Due to the lack of symptoms in individuals with chronic infection it is important that the presence of the virus is identified to prevent damage to the liver.
“The development of liver damage occurs 15 to 20 years after exposure to the virus meaning many individuals will have forgotten they may have come into contact with risk factors for the virus and never considered a test before now.”
If left untreated the virus can cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver over many years. However with modern treatments, it is possible to cure the infection.
Dr McLeman said: "The treatment of hepatitis C has changed significantly over the past few years. Our new treatments are tablets rather than injections taken over 12 weeks and with minimal side effects allowing us to get rid of the virus from a person’s body".
Kevin Walton, 50, from Aberdeen, has hepatitis C. He said: “I’m a former drug user, but I’ve been clean since 2005 and after that I discovered I had hepatitis.
“My initial treatments and medications for the virus left me with some really unpleasant side effects and I noticed they had a big impact on my mood. But treatment for hepatitis has come so far and the treatment I’m on now is just night and day compared to before. I hardly have any side effects at all and I can enjoy my life.”
Anyone can request a test for hepatitis C virus from their GP practice. Testing is also available at NHS Grampian Sexual Health Services and Alcohol and Drugs Action, Turning Point Scotland and Quarriers.