Canadians often hear about celebrities who live life in the fast lane contracting hepatitis C, a blood-borne disease that can lead to liver damage and even cancer, and assume the disease is spread only through injecting illicit drugs.

“But not all of those who are infected with the virus have engaged in high-risk behaviour,” says Dr. Morris Sherman, a Hepatologist and Chairperson of the Canadian Liver Foundation. “People born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to have the disease regardless of their actions.” In fact, about 75 percent of the 250,000 Canadians infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) were born during that time.

Dr. Sherman and other experts suspect that some of these baby boomers contracted the disease through medical equipment used before universal infection control procedures were adopted, while others contracted it through contaminated  blood products used before 1992, when widespread screening all but eliminated HCV from the blood supply.

About half of those infected with the virus don’t know they have it, as HCV can linger for decades without symptoms.

Advocates push for wider access to hepatitis C screening

Many health care providers are encouraging boomers to get tested. A blood test looks for antibodies to the virus, and if the result is positive, a second test is ordered for confirmation.

Advocacy groups are lobbying policy makers to revise screening guidelines to include routine testing for all boomers, rather than just for individuals traditionally considered at risk — intravenous drug users, former prison inmates, people who received blood products before 1992, and those who emigrated from countries where HCV is more prevalent.

“We’ve been taking steps to make that happen,” says Dr. Sherman. He notes that among other initiatives, advocates sent a letter to Jane Philpott, the former Minister of Health. “We’re looking for a comprehensive response.”

The Canadian Treatment Action Council (CTAC) is also calling for expanded access to testing and treatment of HCV so that no Canadian falls through the cracks. “Equitable access to treatments for those infected with hepatitis C would go a long way in reducing the stigma and discrimination associated with viruses such as HCV and HIV, and would also limit the level of risk posed to public health,” says Amanda Fletcher, a policy researcher at CTAC.

Treatment for HCV used to involve months of drug injections and the success rate was low. Today, patients take a pill for 8 to 12 weeks, after which 90 to 100 percent of them are cured.

CTAC feels Canadians should not have to live with HCV. “People should realize that they have a right to get tested and to be tested in a way that is comfortable to them,” says Shelina Karmali, Executive Director.