Two of the world’s most predominant virologists are urging baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C to better protect all Canadians.
The viral infection can destroy the liver and can be fatal. It’s usually acquired through contact with blood, including through blood transfusions, IV drug use or contaminated needles.
“This is very common,” Dr. Lorne Tyrrell, director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology at the University of Alberta, said.
“Worldwide, somewhere between 130 million and 170 million people. In Canada, we estimate between 250,000 and 300,000.”
Up to 35,000 people in Alberta have hepatitis C, Tyrrell said.
Watch below: Thursday marked World Hepatitis Day and two of the world’s most prominent virologists are urging baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C, a disease that can destroy the liver and lead to death.
People with the infection may not even know they have it since it can take years – even decades – before the symptoms of liver disease are noticed.
Dr. Michael Houghton has spent much of his career trying to find the cause of hepatitis C. After seven years, he discovered a virus and developed a test that would determine if patients were infected.
“In the last few years, we’ve developed very good drugs that can cure virtually every patient,” said Houghton, who is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Virology at the University of Alberta.
He and Tyrrell are working on a vaccine they hope to test in the clinic within the next two years.
However, they’re urging governments to strongly recommend people get tested, as the U.S. government has done.
“We have not seen the same policy be recommended in Canada,” Tyrrell said. “We have seen some provinces starting to test all the baby boomers, but some countries have gone for that recommendation and others have not.”
“The really important message is for people to get tested,” Houghton stressed. “If you get tested and you’re positive, you can be cured. If you delay that and you start developing liver cancer, we can cure you of the virus but then you have liver cancer.”
The pair said testing is especially important for people who were born between 1945 and 1975 and anyone who had a transfusion prior to 1990 and hasn’t been tested for hepatitis C.
“There is certainly a risk for those people who had transfusions,” Houghton explained.
Canadian researchers have determined the peak of the hepatitis C epidemic in North America occurred about 15 years earlier than previously believed, suggesting it wasn’t youthful indiscretions that put baby boomers at a high risk for the disease.
Ideally, the Edmonton doctors would like to see an overarching policy by the Canadian government or the public health agency to get more people tested at clinics. However, they realize, that in Canada, “health care is really the responsibility of the provinces.”
Tyrrell wants Alberta to spend $134 million on a hep C screening and treatment program for baby boomers.
In the meantime, Houghton says they’ll continue to work on their vaccine.
“We envision our vaccine being approved in seven, eight years’ time.”
That means hepatitis C could be eradicated by 2030, a World Health Organization goal.
With files from The Canadian Press