Bringing attention to a silent epidemic

liverBob Walsh, Executive Director of the Canadian Society for International Health

(NC) Hepatitis C is a growing problem in our country, with an estimated 250,000 Canadians living with the virus. The disease can take many years to progress without causing noticeable symptoms, as a result, one out of every five individuals living with the virus has no idea that they are infected until the disease is very advanced. That is why World Hepatitis Day, marked on July 28th this year, has been established to raise awareness of chronic viral hepatitis worldwide.

If left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to severe liver damage, liver cancer and the need for a liver transplant. Because many people do not have symptoms when they are infected, it is important for anyone at risk to take action to avoid infecting others. “We encourage people to get tested for hepatitis B and C so that they know their status, as these diseases can be successfully treated if diagnosed early,” says Bob Walsh, the executive director of the Canadian Society for International Health.

It is interesting to note that, baby boomers are much more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than other age groups because medical procedures, such as blood transfusions and dental work were performed before universal infection control measures became the norm. Hepatitis C is also more common among immigrants due to its high prevalence in their country of origin. Street youth and marginalized persons, such as injection drug users and prison inmates, are also more at risk of contracting hepatitis C.

“Hepatitis C is curable in the majority of patients. However, we continue to see an increase in liver cancer rates that are linked to this infection. There needs to be a concerted effort to identify and treat patients or we will face detrimental consequences to both individuals and our health care system,” says Dr. Curtis Cooper, the director of the Ottawa Hospital and Regional Hepatitis Program. “Because hepatitis C has such devastating effects on the liver if left untreated, and with decompensated cirrhosis estimated to increase by 80 per cent by 2035, we emphasize the need for early diagnosis and treatment.”

A recent study from the Canadian Liver Foundation revealed that Canada will experience a significant increase in cases of advanced hepatitis C-related liver disease over the next 20 years. By 2035, the population with chronic hepatitis C who have cirrhosis and more advanced hepatitis C-related disease will rise to 23 per cent from 8.7 per cent in 2013. The longer-term associated health care costs will increase by 60 per cent to $258.4 million at the peak in 2032 from $161.4 million in 2013 as patients age and their liver disease progresses.

The Canadian Society for International Health encourages individuals to talk to their health care professional to get tested. Testing for the disease is done with a simple blood test, the cost of which is covered by the government, and treatment is extremely successful if the disease is diagnosed early.

The society is a national non-governmental organization that works domestically and internationally to reduce global health inequities and strengthen health systems. More information is available at www.csih.org.

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