Inmates with hepatitis C at High Down and Downview prisons will have treatment behind bars, under a new scheme.

Under the Epsom and St Helier NHS Trust initiative a doctor and nurse will visit the prison to test and treat for the illness.

The infectious virus, which causes the liver to swell, has potential serious consequences if left untreated.

Dr Guan Lim, consultant gastroenterologist and the trust’s clinical director of general and emergency medicine, said: “Sadly, hepatitis C is an iceberg of an illness – so many cases are left undiagnosed because people just don’t realise that they have it.

“Prisons can be a hotspot for the virus.

“It’s great to have this scheme up and running, and with the help of the prison medical staff, we are now able to give inmates the best possible care.

“We have an excellent relationship with the staff at both prisons and work closely with them to diagnose and treat the prisoners, slowing down the spread of the illness.”

Estimates suggest over 250,000 people in the UK have been infected with hepatitis C, but eight out of 10 do not know they have it because they have no symptoms.

Worryingly, about 75 per cent of these people go on to develop a chronic hepatitis and about one in five develop cirrhosis of the liver within 20 years.

As part of the scheme, inmates are taught more about the illness and are encouraged to come forward for screening.

If they are found to have the virus, they will then discuss a treatment with Dr Lim and have the opportunity to see a counsellor.

The treatment for hepatitis C is intensive and requires a weekly injection and regular check-ups.

Dr Lim said: “Getting a prisoner to hospital requires two guards and a van, so it’s a lot of effort for just one person to come in for an appointment.

“But now that specialist nurse Lai Ting Tan and I are visiting the prisons, we can see a number of people easily.

“It’s a far more efficient service and saves a lot of valuable resources that members of the public pay for.”

Downview is a closed prison for women in Sutton and was converted from the former nurses’ home of Banstead Hospital.

High Down is situated opposite Downview and was built on the site of a former hospital at Banstead.

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