Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes serious liver damage and affects over 220,000 Canadians. But we have reason to be optimistic — new treatments cure most people of hepatitis C with few side effects. Even better? Across Canada, public drug plans are eliminating coverage restrictions. For a virus that was discovered only 30 years ago, that’s incredible progress.

The problem, though, is that almost half of Canadians with hepatitis C won’t benefit from these new treatments because they don’t ever know they’ve been infected. A person can live with hepatitis C for 20 to 30 years without any symptoms, only learning they’ve been infected after their liver has been seriously damaged.

The only way to know if someone has hepatitis C is to get tested. But until now, screening guidelines in Canada have focused on people who are currently at high risk, missing the number of Canadians who may have been exposed to hepatitis C earlier in their lives. This exposure may have been inadvertent or forgotten after many years, or a health care provider may have assumed their patient was never at risk.

This year, Canada’s leading liver specialists released new screening guidelines that recommend all Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 be offered a hepatitis C test. These guidelines are based on data showing higher hepatitis C prevalence among older adults, including those who don’t fall into groups that would be considered high risk.

This new approach to hepatitis C screening will help health care providers diagnose Canadians who have been living with the infection for years. Adding age-based criteria will also reduce the stigma patients may feel in asking their doctor to get tested.

We have the tools to eliminate hepatitis C. New treatments cure the infection, and they’re becoming more accessible to Canadians from coast to coast. Now we just need to find the estimated 44 percent of Canadians with hepatitis C who don’t know they have it.

Laurie Edmiston is the Executive Director of CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information.