An “epidemic” of hepatitis C will get worse without immediate action to start tackling the problem, a leading doctor has warned.

Dr Roy Robertson, chair of the National Forum on Drug-Related Deaths, said around 1,000 new cases are recorded each year in Scotland.

An estimated 39,000 people in Scotland have hepatitis C.

Treatment services need improving and people need to be encouraged to be tested, said Dr Robertson, a GP based in Edinburgh.

He said: “Hepatitis C is a hugely important epidemic and it’s almost entirely due to drug using. Most of the epidemic in Scotland has been amongst injecting drug users.

“We’ve always expected that this is going to be an increasing number of cases over many years.

“Some people who get the virus can clear it from their system and it’s no longer a problem. Others go on having the disease but don’t get ill for many, many years.”

He said people who used drugs and shared needles in the 1980s are starting to become unwell from the virus.

“Eventually the incubation period elapses and people begin to manifest cirrhosis and advanced liver failure and the death rate will undoubtedly increase over the next few years,” he added.

Estimates say the annual death toll from hepatitis C-related causes in Scotland could be between 100 to 200 by 2015.

“And that will continue, probably indefinitely, for the next goodness-knows-how-many years,” he added.

Dr Robertson, whose group helps to advise the Scottish government, called for investment in treatment services.

He continued: “We treat probably about 1,000 cases per year in Scotland, which clearly isn’t enough, and we need much more in terms of treatment services provision to reduce the size of the overall pool. For treatment services, now is the time.”

Dr Saket Priyadarshi, lead clinician in addiction services for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and vice-chair of the National Forum on Drug-Related Deaths, said treating Hepatitis C now would save millions of pounds in healthcare in the future.