Heightened hepatitis C risk extends to baby boomers

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Attention baby boomers: get tested for hepatitis C.

That’s the message an increasing number of health advocates across the country are spreading as statistics show that 75 per cent of Canadians with the virus were born between 1945 and 1975.

Action Hepatitis Canada has been calling on the federal government to change its guidelines for screening people who need to get tested for the virus.

The association represents over 35 organizations that provide support for people with hepatitis C across Canada.

Current screening guidelines mostly cover intravenous drug users and inmates.

But one of the challenges is the public perception of who can get hepatitis C.

“It’s still a very stigmatized health condition, associated with drug use,” said Patricia Bacon, AHC’s chair. “It has nothing to do with past morally questionable behaviour.”

Bacon is also the executive director of the Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, which delivers services for people living with HIV and hepatitis C in the Yukon.

It provides a free needle exchange as part of its harm reduction program.

When boomers were younger, hygiene standards for needles were different.

That means people could have been contaminated when they were vaccinated, Bacon cited as an example.

While prevention is important, Bacon points out that an estimated 50 per cent of Canadians don’t know they have hepatitis C.

“You may have been exposed to hepatitis C a long time ago,” she said. “Even possibly in your childhood.”

Sometimes the virus will not show symptoms for a long time or show symptoms, such as tiredness, common to other diseases.

“A lot of time people don’t realize until they’re very sick,” Bacon said.

The virus, transmitted by blood, attacks the liver, increasing the chances of getting liver cancer.

Testing for the virus is free in the Yukon, and can be done at the Yukon Communicable Disease Control building, near the hospital.

Last Friday Blood Ties held a free testing clinic in Whitehorse for homeless people and people living in precarious housing conditions.

A number of MLAs, including Premier Darrell Pasloski, got tested to fight the stigma attached to the disease.

Riverdale South MLA Jan Stick herself contracted hepatitis C after a blood transfusion in 1986.

“Canada’s tainted blood scandal prompted me to get tested in 1993,” she said in a statement Blood Ties released.

“I never expected a hep C diagnosis. It was a shock. Twenty years later, I sought treatment and luckily, I was cured. I encourage others to get tested. With today’s treatment options, you can reclaim your health.”

So far the Yukon doesn’t have a public health campaign encouraging boomers to get tested.

That’s because provinces and territories follow guidelines set by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Those guidelines still only focus on drug use and other services that could lead to infections, from unsafe tattooing to sharing personal care items with an infected person.

The Public Health Agency of Canada told the News it was aware of the calls to update the guidelines, but said “further analysis” was required before proposing any changes.

New treatment

Hepatitis C is a curable disease.

Last May the Yukon government announced it would pay for the cost of newly approved medications.

Those are effective, Bacon said, but also costly.

While previous generations of medication cured 50 to 70 per cent of cases, the new one cures around 95 per cent.

And it has few side effects compared to previous drugs.

“We are looking at being able to eliminate hepatitis C in Canada in the next two decades if we make efforts to do it,” Bacon said.

For more information about Blood Ties visit bloodties.ca.

To get tested for hepatitis C contact the Yukon Communicable Disease Control centre at 667-8323.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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