Statistics from the Nova Scotia Department of Health show the province has hepatitis C rates that are “well above” the national average, however local initiatives and new research funding aim to help eliminate the virus in local communities.
Hepatitis C causes approximately 500,000 annual deaths around the world, according to the World Health Organization.
“Hepatitis C is a virus that causes a chronic infection in almost everyone that gets infected. It causes irritation over time and leads to progressive damage in the liver that will eventually lead to liver failure if you live long enough with the disease,” Dr. Lisa Barrett said, a clinician-scientist with the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) and Dalhousie University.
Dr. Barrett says injection drug use is one of the primary ways the virus is transmitted in Nova Scotia.
However, there are other ways of contracting the infection.
“If you have exposure to blood through other means like tattoos. If you’re sharing needles with someone, if you’re involved in using any other forms of drug paraphernalia,” she said.
According to the Nova Scotia Health Department, investments in harm-reduction services have helped reduce the spread of the virus.
Programs like the Mainline Needle Exchange, a service that helps prevent people from finding and using used needles, aims to stem the spread of infections like HIV and hepatitis C. Peer navigators with the group travel throughout the community on a daily basis, properly disposing of used needles and other drug paraphernalia.
One of the peer navigators is a hepatitis C survivor.
“I caught Hep C back in 2002. Lived with it for quite a few years. Your appetite goes, you’re tired. It’s just hell, sometimes it can be really hell on you,” he said.
Now, a new $1.4-million research grant has been awarded to researchers at the Nova Scotia Health Authority to help move Nova Scotia towards eliminating the hepatitis C virus.
“The drugs we have to treat Hepatitis C actually cure the virus, and this is the only chronic viral infection in humans that we can cure with medications. So, it’s a pretty revolutionary thing but you’ve got to get access to the medication and you’ve got to know you’ve got the virus,” Dr. Barrett said.
Dr. Barrett says there is a problem with getting people tested and also delivering health care, and those two areas will be a key focus of the new research.
“Can we test people differently with a super convenient test in the community, and is that something that’s going to get more people tested? That’s one of the things that we’re going to be researching. The other is that sometimes people who are not engaged in care may have some other challenges, and we’re going to do a motivational intervention and then measure whether people are more engaged in care and get more treatment as we go along. This is all embedded in the bigger, wider Hepatitis C elimination strategy for the province,” says Dr. Barrett.
The World Health Organization has set 2030 as the target year to eliminate hepatitis as a global health threat.