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Hep C: the silent killer that has a cure


Close to a quarter of a million Canadians live with a disease that can endanger their lives, yet one in five – about 50,000 –  don’t even know they have it. What they have is hepatitis C, a virus that can cause serious, and even lethal, damage to the liver.

Hep C is one of those viruses that flies under people’s radar. You can have it for years without having any symptoms whatsoever, until your liver is in trouble, which is why it is sometimes called the “silent killer.”

A recent study conducted by the Canadian Cancer Society, Statistics Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Provincial/Territorial Cancer Registries, showed that deaths from liver disease are on the rise in Canada and one of the main causes is Hep C.

While some people assume that a simple shot or pill can protect you against the virus, there is no such vaccine for Hep C. (Those TV ads that speak of a protection before you travel are for Hep A and B, not for C.)

The good news is that there is treatment that can cure Hep C but it can be difficult and doesn’t cure everyone. Even better is that new treatments are being developed that are easier to take and will cure higher numbers of people. These treatments will be a game changer for people with Hep C.  

The key is to find out that you have the virus as early as possible, and the only way to know that is to get tested.

Treatment can cure the infection and allow the liver to heal itself. The liver is vital for health and is responsible for fighting infections, removing toxins from the blood, helping the blood clot and much more. You can’t live without it.

How do you get Hep C?

It’s never too late to learn about Hep C. It is passed from blood to blood – when blood with Hep C in it gets into your bloodstream.

In Canada, some people became infected through blood transfusions before the blood supply began to be screened for the virus in 1992. New Canadians may have contracted the virus in their birth country during a period when transfusions and the use of medical equipment were not tightly controlled.

The most common way to get Hep C is through sharing needles or other drug-use equipment. Although it is unlikely in professional tattoo parlours, you can also get Hep C from tattooing or piercing equipment that is not properly sterilized.

There are some cases where the risk of getting Hep C is low, but possible, so it’s still important to be careful:

  • sharing personal hygiene equipment such as razors, nail clippers or toothbrushes
  • some types of sexual activity
  • passing to a fetus during pregnancy or childbirth

“I think some people have the idea that Hep C is only spread through people who are using drugs for a long time, but one exposure from any risk activity can be enough”, says Dr. Jordan Feld, Hepatologist at the Toronto Western Hospital Francis Family Liver Clinic.

Hep C is not passed through saliva, kissing, hugging or eating meals together.

How do you know if you have hep C?

The only way to know you have Hep C is to get tested. Finding out if you have Hep C is a good idea because there are things you can do to take care of your liver and you can decide if treatment is right for you. In fact, there is a growing movement among public health professionals to have all adults born between 1945 and 1975 tested for Hep C.

“I think that’s just a matter of good health practice. We have our mammograms and our prostate checks and all our other tests and Hep C testing is important too.” says Hermione Jefferis, who has been through Hep C treatment and is a Health Promotion Educator at AIDS Vancouver Island, B.C.

Canadians should think about their history of possible exposure to hepatitis C and take that next step to get tested. This way they will be able to make the best choices for their health. Together, we have the power to stop hepatitis C in its tracks.