Undiagnosed Hepatitis C is grave danger for Canadians

Awareness very low says Canadian Liver Foundation

If you were at an increased risk of having a potentially devastating – but curable – disease, would you want to know? This may be the case for over 100,000 people in Canada who may be living with undiagnosed hepatitis C – a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver.  The little-known reality is that the greatest number of Canadians with hepatitis C are those born between 1945 and 1975. However, a recent survey showed over 80 per cent of Canadians in this age bracket are unaware of their increased risk and only one quarter have been tested.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of people still have a very limited understanding of hepatitis C, and don’t realize that they could be at risk – particularly those born between 1945-75, who are up to five times more likely to have the disease,” says Dr. Morris Sherman, Chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation, and hepatologist based in Toronto. “Chronic hepatitis C can severely damage the liver and leads to increases in liver cancer rates and without diagnosis and intervention will continue to result in otherwise avoidable deaths.”

Increased personal risk for hepatitis C dependent on age and country of origin
It is believed that hepatitis C transmission spiked after World War II, through a possible combination of an increase in medical procedures, the use of glass and metal syringes, and contaminated blood products (prior to screening of the blood supply).

This was the case for Sharon Rider of Acton, Ontario, who was shocked to be diagnosed with hepatitis C nearly 23 years after she contracted the virus from a blood transfusion during surgery. Sharon only experienced her first symptoms many years after her initial diagnosis.

“I know there are others like me out there who are not aware of their personal risk factors for hepatitis C,” Sharon says. “It’s frightening to think of those undiagnosed people, whose livers could be deteriorating, and who could be putting their loved ones at risk,” Sharon says.

As part of this 1945-75 demographic, some multicultural populations are also at increased risk of undiagnosed hepatitis C, particularly if they came to Canada from countries where the illness is more common. Hepatitis C rates are higher in many countries in eastern Europe and Latin America, countries of the former Soviet Union, and certain countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia,vi which is why the Canadian Liver Foundation is calling on members of these high-risk cultural groups in Canada to also be tested.

Undiagnosed Canadians at risk of devastating – yet preventable – liver damage
There are approximately 250,000 Canadians who have hepatitis C, and it is estimated that 44 per cent of people with chronic hepatitis C in Canada don’t even know they have the virus.

Unfortunately, one of the challenges with hepatitis C is that symptoms often don’t appear until the liver has already sustained severe damage. Not only is untreated hepatitis C responsible for causing an increase in liver cancer, but it is also the number one cause of liver transplants, underscoring the importance of screening, early detection and treatment.

While the human costs of the disease are significant, the projected financial impact is also troubling. A report published in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in May 2014 estimates that health care costs associated with the disease will increase 60 per cent by 2032, as untreated or undiagnosed patients age and their liver diseases progress.

“Undiagnosed chronic hepatitis C can be dangerous and weighs heavily on patients and the health care system, but thanks to research, testing and new curative treatments, the life-threatening and costly consequences associated with it are largely preventable,” says Dr. Sherman. “It is critical that members of high-risk groups understand their increased likelihood of having hepatitis C, and get tested without delay so they can be connected with a physician to discuss treatment options if needed.”

Knowledge is power when it comes to preventing liver disease and its complications
Since hepatitis C can be difficult to identify, being aware of your personal risk factors is crucial, particularly for those Canadians born between 1945 and 1975. The Canadian Liver Foundation urges all adults born in this age bracket to be tested for the virus.  The hepatitis C antibody test is a simple blood test and covered by all provincial health care plans and available from your doctor. With recent advancements in treatment, the vast majority of patients are able to achieve a cure relatively quickly with minimal side effects.

“There is no doubt in my mind that hepatitis C testing saves lives,” says Sharon. “Because I was diagnosed, I had a chance to have my disease treated and cured and can now look forward to the future. I would wish the same for others.”

About the Canadian Liver Foundation
Founded in 1969 by a group of doctors and business leaders concerned about the increasing incidence of liver disease, the Canadian Liver Foundation (CLF) was the first organization in the world devoted to providing support for research and education into the causes, diagnoses, prevention and treatment of all liver disease. Today, we are bringing liver research to life by promoting liver health, improving public awareness and understanding of liver disease, raising funds for research and providing support to individuals affected by liver disease. – CNW

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