The question: How serious is hepatitis C?

Very - although you might, like Anita Roddick, not find this out for over 30 years. "I could still have a good few years, even decades, of life left, but it's hard to say. I could be facing liver cancer tomorrow," she said yesterday after blood tests revealed she had been carrying the disease since 1971.

Hepatitis C is often described as a silent pandemic. The Health Protection Agency recorded 7,600 cases of infection in 2005, but only about one in 10 of those who have it have been diagnosed. Roddick is not unusual. The virus, which causes liver damage that can result in cirrhosis (as Roddick's has) and cancer, has non-specific symptoms and often goes unnoticed until things get serious.

Roddick says it is a scandal that the government hasn't tried harder to make people aware of hepatitis C. They have spent £40m advertising the switchover to digital television but only £3m warning us of this potentially deadly virus.

One reason few people know about it is stigma. While Roddick was infected through a blood transfusion in the era when the NHS did not test donated blood for the virus, many others have picked up hepatitis C through injecting drugs with shared needles (it does not seem to be easily passed on through sex).

After much wrangling and delay, the government agreed a compensation scheme for those infected with hepatitis C through blood transfusion. The Skipton Fund pays £20,000 to all who are eligible, with £25,000 more when their illness becomes "advanced" - cirrhosis or worse.

There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but none against C, the most dangerous. Treatments have improved but are only 50% effective. Survival rates for those who develop liver cancer are low. For those whose cirrhosis gets so bad that the liver cannot function, a transplant is the only option.

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