Pre-fix: A guide for people with Hep C or HIV who inject drugs

If you’re only going to read two things

1. Hep C and HIV: Why do they matter if you use injection drugs?

Hep C (hepatitis C) and HIV are viruses that can make you very sick. Both Hep C and HIV are passed from one person to another through the blood, which can happen when people share needles and other injection equipment to use drugs. (HIV can also pass from one person to another during sex and from parent to child during pregnancy, birth and nursing. This is rare for Hep C.) In Canada, people who inject drugs are more at risk for these infections than people who don’t inject drugs.

Hep C is a virus that attacks your liver. Your liver is an important part of your body that does many jobs, including filtering out things that are bad for you, changing the food you eat into energy for your body and fighting infections. You can’t live without it.

Sometimes your body can get rid of Hep C on its own, but most often you need treatment to get rid of it. There is no vaccine for Hep C but there is a cure for it.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks your body’s defence against infections, making it easier for you to get sick. Your body’s defence system is called the immune system. Without treatment, HIV can make it harder for your body to fight off illnesses and disease. Over time if you have HIV you can get sick with life-threatening infections. This is called AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).

There is no cure for HIV, but with the right treatment, care and support, most people with HIV can stay healthy and live a long time.

Some street drugs can also damage the liver and weaken the immune system, so if you’re living with Hep C or HIV and using drugs, it is especially important to take care of your health. The good news is there are lots of things you can do.

The only way to know for sure if you have Hep C or HIV is to get tested. It’s a good idea to get tested for both Hep C and HIV regularly. If the result shows you don’t have Hep C or HIV, it is still possible to get them in the future. If you have had Hep C before and cleared it, it is still possible you could get it again. There is a vaccine for hepatitis A and B but not for Hep C.

“When I read the paper I was given about the symptoms, I realized then that I had had some of the symptoms but I didn’t know at the time I had them because I didn’t know I had Hep C.” Rob

2. A quick look at living with Hep C or HIV

There are many things you can do to take care of your health if you have Hep C or HIV and use injection drugs. Here is a short list to get you started:

  • Get tested

Testing is the only way to know for sure if you have Hep C or HIV. You may not feel sick right now, but if you find out you have Hep C or HIV you can get connected with healthcare, learn about treatments, and find out how to protect yourself and others. The earlier you know, the better it is for your health.

  • Live as healthy as you can

Try to eat healthy, get some rest and exercise. Surround yourself with people who care about you. Living healthy can be hard if you don’t have much money, a safe place to live, or access to clean drinking water. Do the best you can. Every bit helps.

  • Get connected to healthcare

Doctors, nurses, peer workers, harm reduction workers and others can work with you to take care of your health. Sometimes people who use drugs get discriminated against when they try to get healthcare. There are things you can do to get the care you deserve.

  • Learn about treatments

Both Hep C and HIV can be treated. Hep C can be cured and there are treatments for HIV that can keep you healthy for a long time. For people living with HIV, we know that the sooner you start treatment, the better it is for your health, even if you’re not feeling sick. It is possible to start treatment even if you are using drugs. To make treatment work, you need to be prepared to stay on it.

  • Protect yourself and others

Knowing how Hep C and HIV pass from person to person means you can reduce the chance of getting yourself or someone else infected. You might change the way you use drugs to make it safer for you and to lower the chance of passing on Hep C or HIV. You can do things to make sex safer too. You can take steps to have a safe pregnancy and a healthy baby. Finally, there are a few other infections you should know about.

Sometimes people who use injection drugs are told that they are not as good as other people and don’t deserve to get the care they need. This is not true. All people deserve to be treated with respect and to get healthcare, including you.

These pages are full of information to help you make decisions about your health. Sometimes we suggest resources for more information. A print copy of Pre-fix and all of the suggested resources can be ordered for free from CATIE by calling 1-800-263-1638 or from the CATIE online Ordering Centre.