Daryl Luster recalls the moment when he was told he had hepatitis C. It came as a surprise. He always felt tired and unable to concentrate, but he did not think about it.
It was not until he was in his 50s that he found out he had the disease and it became chronic. His liver was most likely damaged.
"My world has fallen apart, I did not know about hepatitis C. I thought it was a death sentence," said Luster, who is now the president of the Pacific Hepatitis Network.
In fact, the disease is far from a death sentence, especially if caught early. In recent years, a cure for hepatitis C has been discovered, which is considered a true success story in the medical world.
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Scientists have identified five hepatitis viruses.
Hepatitis A is usually transmitted through the consumption of contaminated water or food. There is a vaccine against the virus. Hepatitis E is similar, but there is no vaccine and is mainly found in Asia, where it is transmitted by contaminated water.
Hepatitis B can spread through infected blood, semen, and other body fluids. It can be transmitted sexually. There is also a hepatitis B vaccine. Hepatitis D is a virus that requires hepatitis B virus for its replication.
Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through infected blood, which can happen through blood transfusions or contaminated needles. Sexual transmission is also possible, but much rarer, and there is no hepatitis C vaccine. However, most of the time it can be cured with direct-acting antiviral agents.
According to new guidelines in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 – essentially the baby boom generation – should be tested for hepatitis C.
More than 250,000 Canadians are believed to be infected with hepatitis C, but 40 to 70 percent are unaware that they harbor the blood-borne virus, as it may take decades before symptoms appear. Chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Other symptoms include fatigue, flu-like symptoms, dark urine, fever, and jaundice. But sometimes symptoms can not be obvious, says Mel Krajden, the medical director for hepatitis at the BC Center for Disease Control.
"The virus has been quiet for decades," says Krajden.
In Canada, blood transfusions prior to 1990 were not studied for hepatitis C, which is why baby boomers are at risk. That's because hep C was discovered only a year ago.
Krajden says there is a routine test that will help you find out if you have hepatitis. You can ask your doctor for a blood test to check your blood for all types of hepatitis. He says the burden sometimes falls on you as a patient to demand it.
"There is a lot of stigma associated with hepatitis C," says Krajden. Some people may be ashamed because they are sometimes associated with needle use and drug use, or high alcohol consumption and some health professionals may stigmatize patients.
But at the end of the day, Krajden says this is not the case No matter how you got it, it's about treating it as soon as possible before you get any real damage to your liver. Although about 25 percent of those who infect themselves are able to eliminate the virus with their own immune system, the majority of people have not done so, Krajden said.
In hepatitis C, you will be treated with a direct-acting anti-viral medication, which you take for about 8 to 10 weeks. Krajden says about 95 percent of the time it heals patients completely from hepatitis C.
"It's unbelievable, we really have a long way to go, it's a miracle of modern biology."
So there really is not one Reason why people should not be tested and treated. At the end of the day Krajden says doctors just have to be properly trained to respect the needs of the patients so that the stigma goes away.
As for hepatitis A and B, there are vaccines, but immigrants who come to Canada from countries that may have unsanitary medical practices or high levels of food and water contamination should also be tested.
"There are medicines that can help reduce the risk of liver cancer," says Krajden. "The challenge is to diagnose only those people who need to be diagnosed."
Sheryl Ubelacker's Files, the Canadian Press
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