Experts are warning of a potential "health time bomb" from drug users snorting cocaine through banknotes, threatening to infect thousands with hepatitis C.
They fear that the sharing of banknotes by cocaine users will cause the numbers of those infected with hepatitis C to soar. They are particularly concerned because eight out of 10 carriers don't know they have the virus.
The disease is carried through the blood, and users can easily fail to notice small traces of blood on their banknotes, which are then passed around a group. Without treatment, hepatitis C can lead to chronic liver disease.
The Department of Health estimates that there are 200,000 people infected with hepatitis C in Britain, but the Hepatitis C Trust fears the number could be much higher.
Charles Gore, the chief executive of the trust, said: "Estimates show that around 5,000 new cases of hepatitis C are diagnosed every year - but they are mainly through chance. Because so many are undiagnosed we can't tell what kind of problem we are looking at. When 5,000 banknotes were tested in London [in 2000], 99 per cent of them had traces of cocaine on them. That tells us that there is potentially a massive problem in diagnosis and people's awareness of how easily hepatitis C can be contracted.
"We are concerned that if more is not done to alert people to the dangers of sharing, then what is already a big problem risks being turned into a health time bomb."
Professor Graham Foster, of St Mary's Hospital, London, said: "Sharing banknotes or straws is a significant risk factor that people need to be more aware of . Although the risk of contracting hepatitis C through snorting is lower than through sharing a needle, it is still there."
He added: "We can detect levels of hepatitis C for weeks after it has been on a surface, [but] infectious levels will only remain for a few hours, maybe more."
The trust has set up a campaign entitled What Not to Share, and is asking for donations to mark World Hepatitis Awareness Day today.
* According to the latest Home Office figures 750,000 Britons take cocaine every year.
* In an American study last year 4.7 per cent of people who sniffed or snorted cocaine or heroin tested positive for hepatitis C.
* There is no vaccine for the hepatitis C virus.
* Cocaine costs around £30 per gram. According to health charity Drug Scope it's cheapest in Liverpool and Birmingham.Reuse content