“It’s possible to be infected with the hepatitis C virus and not have any symptoms,” said Mel Krajden, medical lead for hepatitis with the BC Centre for Disease Control. “We recommend that baby boomers and people who may have been exposed ask their doctor to be tested so they can benefit from the new, curative treatments.”
July 28 marks the annual World Hepatitis Day. Hepatitis is a disease that attacks the liver and is caused by a number of different viruses. The three most common in B.C. are hepatitis A, B and C. Hepatitis A causes a short-term illness with most infections occurring from eating contaminated food products or from travel to counties where hepatitis A is common. An effective vaccine is available.
Hepatitis B causes both short-term as well as a chronic infection. However, because of B.C.’s school vaccination program, which started in 1992, and its infant vaccination program, which started in 2001, there were fewer than 10 new hepatitis B infections reported in B.C. in 2017. Most of the chronic infections in B.C. occur in immigrants who got infected in their country of origin. For those with a chronic infection, antiviral treatments are available that can control the infection and lower the risk of liver disease and liver cancer. Krajden suggests that people from outside of Canada speak to their physician about getting tested.
Recently, the biggest change has occurred in the public funding of new and more effective treatment options for hepatitis C. Hepatitis C virus is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact and if left untreated, 15 to 25 per cent of people will develop a serious liver disease and die. However, many people don’t develop any symptoms and it’s estimated that between 20 and 30 per cent don’t know they have the virus. The new curative treatments can prevent liver damage and other related health problems.
“These well-tolerated treatments take eight to twelve weeks and about 95 per cent of treated people can be cured,” said Krajden. “It’s a real game changer.”
Who should ask for testing?
Health care providers don’t always know to ask their patients whether they may have been exposed to hepatitis C. You should ask for testing
- Were born between the years 1945 and 1975
- Received a blood transfusion, blood products or organ transplant before 1992 in Canada
- Received health care or got a tattoo where equipment wasn’t sterilized or there was a lack of infection prevention and control practices
- Were involved in current or past (even once) injection drug use
- Have a history of sexual contact or sharing of personal care items with someone who is infected
- Have a history of incarceration
- Were born or resided in a region where hepatitis C prevalence is higher than three per cent for example: Central, East and South Asia, Australasia and Oceania, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa or Middle East
- Were born to a mother who has or had hepatitis C
- Are infected with HIV, or are a man who has sex with men
For people who were not infected but continue to engage in high-risk activities, retesting every year is recommended. For those who have been cured but continue to engage in high-risk activities, retesting annually with HCV RNA is appropriate.
To learn more about hepatitis and recent developments, visit the BCCDC website