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Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving me an opportunity to participate in the debate and to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Laxton) for initiating it. I have a constituent by the name of Barry Fitzgerald who must go to Paris and then Milan to get a fibre scan test carried out. I wrote to the Minister to establish how many of those fibre scanning machines we have in the UK. They provide, as she may be aware, a less intrusive way to establish the extent to which hepatitis C has infected the body. The machines cost an individual about £40 to use. I understand that there are no such machines in the UK, so I wonder whether the Minister can clarity whether there is any intention to introduce one in this country.
Caroline Flint: I am afraid that I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman on that issue. I cannot recall whether I have dealt with that letter. I understand that issues about treatment are important and PCTs must look at them in considering how they commission treatment, but I would prefer to write to him in detail about that, rather than respond this evening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North asked about developing modelling techniques to help to project the numbers of patients. The Trent study will help us to do that and the Department of Health has also funded the Health Protection Agency to allow it to work with the Medical Research Council's biostatistics unit to provide estimates of the future burden of hepatitis C-related liver disease. The results from that ongoing study will be submitted to a peer review journal for publication later this year. Again, such information helps not only Ministers, but hon. Members, because they can raise issues with their PCTs and others about the cost-benefits of work in the area and the way in which larger future costs to the health service can be prevented in the future. The outcome will thus be interesting.
11 Jul 2005 : Column 680
The hon. Member for Southend, West raised a point about targeted awareness. We have plans to implement that, especially for minority ethnic communities. That will start later this year and will form an important part of what we should do. There should not necessarily be a one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning. We must determine how to reach different groups and also decide what each group's concerns might be, because they may vary from one group to another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North asked about proactive screening. We have published information and guidance for health professionals and the public that highlights those who are thought to be at risk of hepatitis C infection and should thus consider being tested, or be offered testing. That forms part of the awareness campaign. There is a continuing programme to raise awareness of hepatitis C among the public and those at risk. We hope that the awareness website, the telephone service and the regional road shows and photographic exhibitions will all contribute to that.
The prospects for people diagnosed with hepatitis C have improved markedly over the past decade. Antiviral drug therapy has been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and has good success rates. NICE is currently considering the case for treating patients with mild hepatitis C in the light of research funded by the Department. Further guidance on that is expected next year, which is why it is important to diagnose people with hepatitis C.
We recognise the importance of hepatitis C as a public health issue. Alongside unprecedented increases in NHS funding, we have provided central support for specific aspects of the implementation of the hepatitis C action plan for England. We have asked strategic health authorities to ensure that local arrangements are in place to provide appropriate services, which will involve collaboration with their primary care trust, clinicians and agencies such as the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, the Health Protection Agency and voluntary sector organisations