Your Risk of Hepatitis C Likely Greater Than You Think
Canadians who are currently between the ages of 41 and 71, and born here in Canada or abroad, are up to five times more likely to be living with hepatitis C than people in other age groups. But results of a new online survey from the Canadian Liver Foundation show that the majority of Canadians in this age group (over 80 per cent) are unaware of their increased risk and only one-quarter have been tested for the virus.
If you were living with a potentially life-threatening – but curable – disease, would you want to know? Hepatitis C is a serious liver disease that may have no symptoms until the liver is severely damaged, meaning that tens of thousands of Canadians may be living with the virus and not know it. Could you have it?
For Sharon Rider of Acton, Ontario, this story is all too familiar. While undergoing back surgery at the age of 16, she unknowingly received tainted blood containing the hepatitis C virus. However, it wasn’t until she was 39 years old and married with two children, that blood tests revealed she had been living with the virus for 23 years.
A silent disease
With symptoms that can be mild or nonexistent, hepatitis C is often called a “silent” illness. Sharon experienced no symptoms before being diagnosed, and had no idea that she was infected with the virus.
Sharon’s story is not uncommon. There are around 250,000 Canadians living with hepatitis C, and an estimated 44 per cent of those don’t even know they have the disease. Those living with undiagnosed hepatitis C can pass along the virus and are at risk of developing progressive liver disease, including liver cancer, and ultimately death from liver failure.
“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. “I never knew that I and others my age could be at increased risk of living with undiagnosed hepatitis C.”
Could you have it?
People may risk exposure to hepatitis C by using injection drugs (even once), getting tattoos, piercings, pedicures, manicures or medical procedures with improperly sterilized equipment, sharing personal hygiene items with an infected person (e.g. razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers) or having had a blood transfusion or received blood products prior to July 1990.
In addition to these risk factors, and as part of the 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, such as countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
To help Canadians understand their risk, the Canadian Liver Foundation offers a hepatitis risk questionnaire in English, French and Chinese.
Talk to your doctor and request the test
Sharon’s hepatitis C was not transmitted to her husband and children, which allowed her to focus on her own treatment. Thanks to research and tremendous advancements in the treatment of chronic hepatitis C, the disease can be cured.
Having been cured of hepatitis C in 2014, Sharon is calling on other Canadians to learn about their increased risk of having hepatitis C, and get tested to prevent the devastating consequences associated with untreated liver disease.
“If I could live for two decades without knowing I had this virus, so can others,” Sharon says. “That’s why it’s so important to get tested. The sooner you know you have it, the sooner you can get treated and hopefully cured.”
If you were born between 1945 and 1975, or think you might be at risk of having undiagnosed hepatitis C, the Canadian Liver Foundation urges you to talk to your doctor about getting tested. The hepatitis C antibody test is a simple blood test, covered by all provincial health care plans.
Visit liver.ca/couldyouhaveit to find out your hepatitis risk.