30 June 2004

S2M-1481 Hepatitis C

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-1481, in the name of Keith Raffan, on the urgent need to tackle hepatitis C, public health crisis. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the launch of the UK Hepatitis C Resource Centre for Scotland; recognises the urgent need to raise awareness of what the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh described in their UK Hepatitis C Consensus Statement of April 2004 as a "public health crisis" which affects between 45,000 and 65,000 people in Scotland, and believes that the Scottish Executive should acknowledge that, as with HIV/AIDS, this epidemic can only be effectively tackled through central, ring-fenced funding for both treatment and prevention.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate Keith Raffan on securing this important debate. Watching the minister scurrying to his advisers at the back of the chamber throughout the debate, we can tell that a wide range of issues has been raised that he is committed to responding to.

One of the issues that we should return to is that of hepatitis C in our society and the way in which we view people who suffer from the disease. Of course, as other members have said, one of the immediate problems is that we do not know all the people who suffer from the disease, which, in its early stages, is relatively hidden—a silent killer. Some people have contracted hepatitis C through their lifestyles but, of course, addicts rarely choose their lifestyles—virtually no one is an addict through choice. Other people have inadvertently become infected with hepatitis C.

It is interesting that a social stigma is attached to hepatitis C. We do not speak about methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus victims in hospitals in the same way, yet in a sense people can become infected by hepatitis C just as innocently as they can fall victim to MRSA.

If we stigmatise people who suffer from HCV, we will make it harder to find out who they are and to provide support to them. That is a moral issue, but there is also a practical issue about not stigmatising hepatitis C sufferers. If we do not support them, they are more likely to pass the disease to others. Therefore, besides the moral case for being non-judgmental, self-interest is involved.

From the various documents on the subject, it is perfectly clear that the means of transmission of the disease is imperfectly understood. There are clear paths through which transmission of the disease is understood to happen—in particular, in relation to injecting drug users who share their gear—but we must remember that there are other ways of transmission. Whether mother-to-baby infection can take place to any significant extent and to what extent the disease can be passed on through sexual contact or through sharing shaving instruments, for example, is not clear.

Addicts are victims, but everyone who is a victim of the disease is not an addict. There is a high incidence of the disease among prisoners because the chaotic lifestyles of injecting drug users throughout Scotland often lead those people into criminality. Therefore, we must address the continuing scandal of inadequate throughcare from prison to reintegration into normal life. Of course, that is partly a financial issue, but it is also an issue of priorities. We must recognise that supporting prisoners should not be at the bottom of our pile of priorities; we should treat that matter seriously if prisoners are not to be a reservoir of infection for others.

I close by highlighting one fact from the statement issued on 22 April by the "Consensus" conference on hepatitis C. The statement says:

"Only half of those referred attend clinics".

We need more people in the community to make non-judgmental contact with people who are infected by the disease. It is in all our interests, and not only in the interests of those who are infected, that we step up the action.


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