New test aims to help identify thousands in B.C. unknowingly living with hepatitis C
Daryl Luster is one of the lucky ones.
The patient advocate with the Pacific hepatitis C network was diagnosed with the disease completely by accident while getting surgery for a hernia.
He said if he hadn’t found out, he might well be dead today.
“Some of my peers are dying now. These are people that unfortunately went on to develop, most commonly, liver cancer. Even if they were cured recently,” he said.
Being in Luster’s position isn’t unusual. An estimated 80,000 British Columbians have hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can devastate the liver — but officials say many people don’t realize they do.
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What’s more, there’s no official program to screen adults for Hep C, and Lustre says that means many people are unknowingly living with an illness that could slowly be killing them.
“I don’t know any doctor who could diagnose someone by looking at them, especially hepatitis C,” he said.
“I looked fine. I didn’t turn yellow. Most people don’t.”
Now, a new pilot project seeking to screen adult British Columbians is hoping to change the situation.
Five London Drugs locations in the Lower Mainland are offering screening through a new $24 finger-prick test called OraQuick HCV that can turn results around in just 20 minutes.
Dr. Alnoor Ramji, a hepatitis C specialist and clinical associate professor of medicine at UBC, said the program is designed to help identify people unknowingly living with the virus, and connecting them with treatment options.
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Recent advancements in medicine now mean that hepatitis C can be cured in most people in months.
He said that’s important, considering that people living with it put themselves at risk of cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or even total liver failure.
The campaign is specifically focused on baby boomers and new Canadians, both of whom have a much higher rate of Hep C than the general public.
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He said an estimated 75 per cent of people who have the disease were born between the years of 1945 and 1975.
But Ramji said convincing them to get tested remains the biggest barrier because of the way people think about hepatitis C.
“That’s the biggest concern. Baby boomers have hepatitis C, and many of them have not used injection drugs, there’s no history of blood transfusion or tattoos and when you say hepatitis C, there is so much stigma.”
Hepatitis is commonly transmitted by contaminated needles, but in rarer cases can also be contracted through sexual activity, or coming in contact with someone’s blood — for example, on a personal care item like a razor or toothbrush.
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Ramji said there will be a poster and information campaign at the participating pharmacies, along with counselling services on hand in case someone does test positive for the virus.
Luster said he’d like to see screening become a part of people’s regular check-ups with their GPs one day, but said in the meantime, anyone who sees the posters shouldn’t hesitate to get tested.
“If you are of that age group of baby boomers… yes, period, end of discussion.”
The test is available at the following London Drugs locations:
— With files from Nadia Stewart
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