Hepatitis C is a viral infection that attacks the liver, yet most patients do not realize they have contracted the disease until it has already done significant — and sometimes irreversible – damage.

“It’s an infection that you contract through exposure to infected blood,” explains Dr. Jordan Feld, a hepatologist at the Toronto Western Hospital. “It’s more easily contracted than people realize. Our biggest challenge is that most people who contract it are unaware of their infection.”

In Canada, an estimated 250,000 people have hepatitis C and at least one in five of those don’t know they’re infected.
While some patients are able to clear the virus naturally, approximately 75 percent of those who get infected end up with chronic hepatitis C, a life-threatening disease that is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplantation in Canada.

Risky behaviour

While hepatitis A and B can be prevented through vaccines, Feld explains that hepatitis C is a more complex, constantly changing virus.

"It’s more easily contracted than people realize. Our biggest challenge is that most people who contract it are unaware of their infection."

“There really is no way to protect yourself other than making sure you reduce your risky behaviours,” he says. Infections can result from the use of unsterilized medical or tattoo equipment, shared intravenous drugs, and unprotected sex.
Infection is more common among patients born in countries with high rates of hepatitis C, such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Egypt. In addition, nearly 70 percent of patients infected with hepatitis C are baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965.

Those who get infected with hepatitis C may not show symptoms for decades, until the infection causes scarring of the liver, known as cirrhosis, or liver cancer. As a result, hepatitis C contributes to more deaths than any other infectious disease in Canada, including HIV. 

“The reason it doesn’t grab the headlines is because it does it so slowly,” says Feld.

The ‘C’ translates to ‘curable’

Diagnosing hepatitis C requires a simple blood test, which is available to Canadians for free through their family doctors. Unlike other viral infections, hepatitis C can be cured with treatment.

In the past, injection therapies used to treat hepatitis C had harsh side effects similar to those experienced by chemotherapy patients. However, Feld explains that over the last few years, new antiviral treatments that are faster acting, more effective, and easier on patients’ systems have become available.

“Even people with advanced liver disease [are able to] go back to a pretty normal life when we cure the infection,” says Feld. “Their life expectancy goes back to normal, and for most people, their liver significantly improves over time.”

Talk to your doctor

According to Feld, hepatitis C is a major public health problem in Canada – one that both patients and physicians need to be aware of.

“With these amazing new therapies, if we can diagnose people, we can cure the vast majority of people and prevent the damages caused by liver disease,” says Feld, adding that there is the potential to eliminate this viral infection from the country.

The first step, he says, is to get tested because “we can’t treat people who are not diagnosed.”