Dame Anita Roddick, who built a retail empire while taking an ethical approach to business, has revealed she contracted the Hepatitis C virus and is now suffering liver damage.

A blood transfusion she received in 1971 while giving birth to her youngest child was the source of the infection.

Roddick founded The Body Shop in 1976 and sold her stake in the 2000-store chain to cosmetics giant L’Oreal for £652m last year.

The “Hep C” virus can cause liver damage and cancer, and gay men have become increasingly infected.

The virus, which is transmitted through bodily fluids, displays few symptoms.

“I want to blow the whistle on the fact that Hep C must be taken seriously as a public health challenge and must get the attention and resources that it needs,” Dame Anita wrote on her blog.

Will Nutland, Head of Health Promotion at Terrence Higgins Trust, said:

“Hepatitis C is an increasing problem for gay men.

“It can be the most damaging type of hepatitis and even though it can have no symptoms for many years, in the longer term it can also cause cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer and death.

“Until recently hepatitis C was thought only to be transmitted through blood, and rarely through sex.

“However, many more gay men have been diagnosed with the disease recently and it is now thought that unprotected anal sex and fisting also transmit the virus.”

There is no preventative vaccine for Hepatitis C infection, but some treatments can be effective in around 50% of cases.

Dame Anita was critical of the British government’s approach, and urged people to get tested:

“Hep C has been called a ‘silent killer’ because you can go for years with no symptoms. It is also a silent killer because it’s just not being diagnosed and dealt with in an effective way,” she wrote.

“Nine out of ten of us who have hep C simply don’t know they’ve got it. The Government in this country doesn’t seem to have had a very vigorous response to hep C.

“If you look at somewhere like France, half the people with the virus have already been diagnosed. But in this country we’re way behind; only 1 in 10 people with hepatitis C have been diagnosed.”