Hepatitis C – More than three-quarters of Canadians at risk
Hepatitis C – In advance of World Hepatitis Day, the Canadian Liver Foundation is urging Canadians at risk to get tested for hepatitis C, a contagious blood-borne virus that attacks the liver and can be deadly despite often having no visible health warnings. A new survey found that 83 per cent of Canadians born between 1945-1975 don’t know that hepatitis C typically doesn’t present any symptoms — despite the fact that this group are at higher risk of having chronic hepatitis C. Today, the CLF is launching its #thisisyourwarning campaign to alert Canadians of this potentially life-threatening and silent liver disease and to encourage them to assess their risk using its confidential, online Hepatitis Risk Assessment questionnaire.
“It’s common for people to visit the doctor when they’re not feeling well, but sadly those infected with hepatitis C often don’t experience any symptoms or visible warning signs, especially in the early stages of the virus,” says Dr. Morris Sherman, Chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation and Toronto-based hepatologist. “In many cases, patients are able to be cured of this deadly virus especially if detected early on, and so we’re urging people born between 1945 and 1975 to get tested instead of waiting until they feel sick.”
Approximately 60 per cent to 70 per cent of Canadians with hepatitis C do not experience symptoms until their liver has already been damaged. This is alarming as it is estimated that as many as 100,000 people with hepatitis C remain undiagnosed and are at risk of experiencing the most severe consequences including cirrhosis, liver cancer and even premature death.
Lynn Fenton of South Surrey, British Columbia had a blood transfusion in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2011 when her doctors were investigating the cause of elevated iron levels in her blood that testing revealed hepatitis C.
“Until I was diagnosed with hepatitis C, the virus wasn’t even on my radar because I didn’t think I could have it especially considering my healthy lifestyle,” says Fenton. “People don’t realize how common hepatitis C is among the Boomer generation because there are no visible symptoms and it goes unnoticed, like it did in my case. Something as profound as a blood transfusion or as innocent as getting a manicure in the late eighties and early nineties could have exposed you to hepatitis C. Take my story as your warning.”
Risk-based testing alone has not been effective and patients continue to be diagnosed by ‘accident’. Since 2009, the hepatitis C antibody test has only been recommended for individuals with recognized risk factors including any injection drug use, blood transfusions, or use of blood products prior to 1990 or participation in medical procedures or immunization in countries where hepatitis C is common. In 2012, the Canadian Liver Foundation issued its own recommendation which has widespread support from liver experts and advocacy groups that all adults born between 1945 and 1975 be tested for hepatitis C.
Urgent need for increased public awareness of hepatitis C testing due to recent misinformation
In April, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care (CTFPHC) released new screening guidelines advising doctors not to test adults without any perceived risk factors. CTFPHC claims that screening has the “potential for false positives” and may cause “mental distress” if the diagnosis was positive. On the contrary, the Canadian Liver Foundation’s recent survey showed only one per cent of Canadians born between 1945-1975 would avoid getting tested because they fear the results.
The survey also revealed that 19 per cent of adults born between 1945 and 1975 wouldn’t get tested for hepatitis C because they don’t believe they did anything to contract the virus. However, a study revealed that many within this age group may have been exposed to the virus from contaminated medical equipment such as glass and metal syringes reused during childhood vaccinations both in North America as well as in other countries.
Hepatitis C is curable but individuals must first know that they have the disease. Due to the range of activities and scenarios in which an individual could have contracted hepatitis C, the Canadian Liver Foundation will continue to warn Canadians born between 1945-1975 to take a one-time hepatitis C antibody test – a simple blood test which is covered by all provincial health care plans, is available from family doctors and could save lives.
To learn more about hepatitis C, and to take the online Hepatitis Risk questionnaire, visit www.liver.ca/thisisyourwarning