Daryl Luster remembers the moment he was told he had hepatitis C. It came as a surprise. He always felt tired and unable to focus, but he didn’t think anything of it.
It wasn’t until he was in his 50s that he found out he had the disease and it became chronic. His liver was most likely damaged.
“My world fell apart. I didn’t know anything about hep C. I thought it was a death sentence,” Luster said, who is now the president of the Pacific Hepatitis Network.
In fact, the disease is far from a death sentence, especially if caught early. In the last couple of years, a cure for hepatitis C has been discovered and it’s considered a real success story in the medical world.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Scientists have identified five hepatitis viruses.
Hepatitis A is usually transmitted through consumption of contaminated water or food. There is a vaccine for the virus. Hepatitis E is similar but there is no vaccine, and mainly occurs in Asia where it is transmitted by contaminated water.
Hepatitis B can spread through infected blood, semen, and other bodily fluids. It can be sexually transmitted. There is also a vaccine for hep B. Hepatitis D is a virus that requires hepatitis B virus for its replication.
Hepatitis C is mostly transmitted through infected blood, which can happen through blood transfusions or contaminated needles. Sexual transmission is also possible but is much less common and there is no vaccine for hep C. However, most of the time it can be cured with direct-acting anti-virals.
According to new guidelines in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 — essentially the baby-boom generation — should be tested for hepatitis C.
More than 250,000 Canadians are believed to be infected with hepatitis C, but 40 to 70 per cent are unaware they harbour the blood-borne virus because it can take decades before symptoms become evident. Chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.
Other symptoms include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, dark urine, fever, and jaundice. But sometimes symptoms may not be evident, says Mel Krajden, the medical lead for hepatitis at the BC Centre for Disease Control.
“The virus can be quiet for decades,” Krajden says.
In Canada, blood transfusions before 1990 were not screened for hepatitis C, hence why baby boomers are at risk. That’s because hep C wasn’t discovered until a year prior.
Krajden says there’s a routine test that you can do to see if you have hepatitis. You can ask your medical practitioner for a blood test, where your blood is then screened for all the types of hepatitis. He says the burden sometimes falls on you as a patient to demand it.
“There’s a lot of stigma associated with hepatitis c,” Krajden says. Some people might feel ashamed because it is sometimes associated with needle sharing and drug use, or high levels of drinking and some medical professionals can stigmatize patients because of it.
But at the end of the day, Krajden says it doesn’t matter how you got it, it’s about treating it as soon as possible before you get any real damage to your liver. Although about 25 per cent of people who do get infected are able to clear the virus with their own immune system, the majority of people don’t, Krajden added.
With hepatitis C, you get treated with a direct acting anti-viral medication, which you take for about 8 to 10 weeks. Krajden says about 95 per cent of the time, it cures patients completely of hepatitis C.
“It’s incredible. We’ve really come a long way. It’s a miracle of modern biology.”
So there’s really no reason why people shouldn’t get tested and treated. At the end of the day Krajden says, medical professionals just need to be properly trained to respect the needs of patients so the stigma goes away.
As for hepatitis A and B, there are vaccines, however, immigrants who come to Canada from countries who may have unsanitary medical practices or high levels of food and water contamination should also get tested.
“There are medications that can help reduce the risk of liver cancer,” Krajden says. “The challenge is just diagnosing the people who need to be diagnosed.”
Files from Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press