Identification and treatment of viral hepatitis C in persons who use drugs: a prospective, multicenter outreach study in Flanders, Belgium

D. Busschots*, C. Kremer, R. Bielen, O.M. Koc, L. Heyens, E. Dercon, R. Verrando, T. Windelinckx, G. Maertens, S. Bourgeois, N. Hens, C. Mathei, G. Robaeys

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background: Targeted screening for hepatitis C viral (HCV) infection is not yet widely executed in Belgium. When performed in people who use drugs (PWUD), it is mainly focused on those receiving opiate agonist therapy (OAT). We wanted to reach out to a population of difficult to reach PWUD not on centralized OAT, using non-invasive screening as a bridge to re-integration in medical care supported by facilitated referral to a specialist.

Methods: This was a prospective, multicenter cohort study in PWUD not enrolled in a centralized OAT program in a community-based facility in Limburg or OAT program in a community-based facility in Antwerp, Belgium, from October 2018 until October 2019. Two study teams recruited participants using an outreach method at 18 different locations. Participants were tested for HCV antibodies (Ab) by finger prick, and risk factors were assessed through a face-to-face questionnaire. Univariate analyses were used to assess the association between HCV Ab and each risk factor separately. A generalized linear mixed model was used to investigate the association between the different risk factors and HCV.

Results: In total, 425 PWUD were reached with a mean age of 41.6 +/- 10.8, and 78.8% (335/425) were men. HCV Ab prevalence was 14.8% (63/425). Fifty-six (88.9%) PWUD were referred, of whom 37 (66.1%) were linked to care and tested for HCV RNA. Twenty-nine (78.4%) had a chronic HCV infection. Treatment was initiated in 17 (58.6%) patients. The adjusted odds for HCV Ab were highest in those with unstable housing 6 months before inclusion (p < .001, AOR 8.2 CI 95% 3.2-23.3) and in those who had ever shared paraphernalia for intravenous drug use (p < .001, AOR 6.2 CI 95% 2.5-16.0).

Conclusions: An important part tested positive for HCV. Treatment could be started in more than half of the chronically infected referred and tested positive for HCV-RNA. Micro-elimination is necessary to achieve the World Health Organization goals by 2030. However, it remains crucial to screen and link a broader group of PWUD to care than to focus solely on those who inject drugs.

Original languageEnglish
Article number54
Number of pages9
JournalHarm Reduction Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 May 2021


  • Hepatitis C virus
  • Outreach
  • People who use drugs
  • Linkage to care
  • High-income country
  • HCV
  • CARE

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