This article originally appeared on www.catie.ca. CATIE is Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.
More and more, Canada’s health care professionals and frontline service providers are facing the increasing challenge of the hepatitis C epidemic. It is estimated that more than 242,000 people are living with HCV in Canada, and many of them don’t know they have the virus.
With few dedicated HCV services in place, many HIV and harm reduction frontline services are making efforts to respond to the need to integrate hepatitis C work with HIV work. One welcome development is that improved medications and resources that address transmission, testing, treatment and living with the virus are becoming available to assist in addressing this challenge.
Communicating the importance of testing and treatment is of critical importance. HCV is sometimes called the ‘silent killer’ because the virus may take 10 to 20 years to do damage to the liver without showing any symptoms. It’s estimated that one in five people living with HCV don’t know they have it.
Early screening and detection is an important factor for successful treatment and recovery. It’s a message that needs to be repeated throughout the year – and most certainly on World Hepatitis Day, July 28.
Here are six key messages to bring home to clients:
Know how hepatitis C is passed from one person to another.
There are often many questions about transmission risks. The most important fact about transmission is that HCV is spread through blood-to-blood contact.
Everything new, every time.
The highest transmission rates for HCV in Canada occur through shared or reused needles or other shared injection drug-use equipment such as cookers and filters, and through sharing equipment used for smoking crack cocaine such as glass stems. Connecting with a local needle syringe program can give service users access to new equipment for free. Hepatitis C can also be passed if equipment is shared or reused for piercing or tattooing.
Know the ABCs.
There are actually many different kinds of hepatitis and the most common in Canada are A, B and C. A vaccine is readily available here for A and B, however there is no vaccine to protect against hepatitis C.
The only way to know if a person has HCV is to get tested. It takes two tests to know if there is active virus in the body that can be passed on to others. Sometimes people may need support in health care settings to get the tests they need.
People age 50-65 are especially encouraged to get tested, as they may have been exposed to blood products or undergone medical procedures before appropriate precautions were taken around HCV. Since 1992, blood products and organs have been screened for hepatitis in Canada.
Know the treatment options.
Hepatitis C treatment is getting better all the time with more effective medications and shorter treatment times. People considering treatment will have to consider a number of factors including their liver health, supports around treatment side effects and the high cost of treatment.
Promote liver health.
There are lots of ways to help the liver stay healthy including drinking lots of water, eating as well as possible and getting enough rest. Fatty foods, alcohol, street drugs and cigarettes can be hard on the liver. Cutting back on any of these things will help the liver stay healthy.
Free resources available for Canadian frontline service providers: Contact the CATIE Ordering Centre at www.catie.ca and visit their special World Hepatitis Day web page. Resources include new Hepatitis C Key Messages in bright formats (posters, wallet cards and harm-reduction stickers) and booklets for those who inject drugs (What Works and Treat Me Right). There are also multilingual resources.