Viral hepatitis C is a serious liver disease that is spread through blood contact, and may lead to liver failure, cancer, cirrhosis and death, if left untreated. Some 300,000 Canadians are infected with the disease, and about half of them are unaware they are carrying it. Who are they?
1. Intravenous drug users
People who are injecting drugs and sharing needles are at high risk for a number of health issues, both from the drugs themselves and from the unhygienic injection materials. Hepatitis C is easily spread through the re-use of needles, and users may be co-infected with HIV/AIDS. Even people who have injected drugs only occasionally are encouraged to get tested.
2. Immigrants from countries with high levels of Hepatitis C
Healthcare systems in many lower income countries may not provide the necessary level of sterilization and hygiene practices to prevent blood contamination. People from these regions who have high standards of personal care and cleanliness may still have contracted the disease through past medical treatment.
3. Native Canadians
Unfortunately there are still pockets of populations in Canada, especially of Indigenous peoples, who live in sub-standard conditions and receive sub-standard health care. This demographic has a higher risk of contracting viral hepatitis, among the many other ways in which they are vulnerable to infection and disease.
Many of the 300,000 Canadians who are infected with Hepatitis C were born between 1945 and 1965. Strict blood safety practices are fairly recent in Canada, and even so, there have been lapses and errors in the system. Anybody who had medical procedures before 1990may have contracted Hepatitis C and be unaware they are carrying the disease.
5. Just about everybody else
Did you know that the Hepatitis C virus can remain alive in dry blood outside the body? Or that anything from sharing a toothbrush to going to the barber to getting a little amateur tattoo could put you at risk? Even more troubling, you could be symptom-free for 20 to 30 years while the disease slowly damages your liver.
What to do?
In the lead-up to World Hepatitis Day on July 28, the Canadian Society for International Health is urging Canadians to get tested and learn their options. Find out more about Hepatitis C. Be sure to check out the program of community events across the country to mark World Hepatitis Day.