In honour of tomorrow’s World Hepatitis Day, we talked to Cheryl Dale, hepatology nurse and president of the Canadian Association of Hepatology Nurses, about new breakthroughs in treatment and the resources still required to treat hepatitis C, a “silent killer” that infects an estimated one percent of Canadians.
Q: What is hepatitis C?
A: Hepatitis C is a blood-born virus that most people don’t know they have until they develop symptoms that can lead to end-stage liver problems such as cirrhosis.
Q: How is it contracted and what are the symptoms? Are certain people more susceptible?
A: It’s contracted through blood contact. Prior to 1990, it could have been infected blood transfusions. In this day and age, it’s considered to be more prominent in injection drug users but it can also be related to sharing personal hygiene objects like nail clippers or files. It can also be contracted through tattooing. Basically, anywhere there’s blood-to-blood contact. Initially, someone might not experience any symptoms. The damage often takes 10 to 20 years. The symptoms of end-stage liver problems are those associated with cirrhosis: jaundice, fluid on the abdomen, liver cancer.
Q: How do you know if you need to be tested for it?
A: If they have any high-risk factors in their history, they should definitely be screened. The CDC [Centre for Disease Control] in the United States has also advocated that all baby boomers be screened. This population is considered a bit higher risk for exposure because of behaviours and lifestyle implications from when they were young and no one knew the disease existed. They might have been exposed to drug transfusions prior to a time when the blood supply was screened for hepatitis C.
Q: Why the specific focus on this particular type of hepatitis?
A: We don’t have a vaccine to prevent it. Also, we know the long-term consequences, and we have treatments that can help prevent them. Most people are not aware of the progress we have made in treatment, and the increased cure rate.
Q: How can hepatitis C be treated and what is the prognosis for those infected?
A: It’s treated with a combination of medications. The unfortunate thing is that they come with a host of side effects, but they’re certainly able to get through treatment with the help of specialized nurses. The prognosis depends on what kind of hepatitis C you have, as well as whether you’ve had treatment and what stage of liver disease you have.
Q: What challenges do you face in treating hep C?
A: The main challenge is the number of treating professionals available in the country. We need more specially trained doctors and nurses. It’s not a treatment that anyone can administer; it needs to be done by experts. And whenever there’s a discrepancy between the number of treatments needed and the number of professionals who can administer them, there’s going to be an increase in wait times, required travel for patients or even decisions to forego treatment.
Q: If you think you need to be tested, what should you do?
A: Start by consulting your primary healthcare provider and he or she can refer you to an expert in the field of hepatitis C.
Click here to see how you can celebrate World Hepatitis Day in your area. Will you be participating?