Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Most people who have HCV feel well, have no symptoms, and do not know they have the disease. Others may experience a brief illness with symptoms usually appearing 6 to 12 weeks after being infected with the virus. The only way to know for sure that you have HCV is to have a blood test.
The good news is that HCV is now considered curable for most people.
Transmission can occur through blood-to-blood contact, such as sharing injection drug use equipment or unprotected sex. The only way to know that you may be infected is to get tested. If you are sexually active or sharing needles, you should know your HCV status. You should also know your partner’s status. Talk to your doctor, nurse practitioner or nurse, or visit a community organization that offers testing.
Protect yourself from becoming infected by:
- Not sharing injection drug use equipment such as needles
- Not sharing sex toys
- Using condoms during vaginal, rectal and oral sex
- Using lubricant during vaginal, rectal and oral sex to prevent tearing in the membranes of the vagina and rectum, as well as to help prevent condom breakage
Many community organizations provide free harm reduction supplies, including condoms (male and female), lubrication, and drug use supplies to help keep you safer.
If you think you could have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus through contact with someone else’s blood, it’s important to ask your health care provider to be tested. If you aren’t sure whether you could be at risk for having contracted HCV, consider if you:
- Are HIV+
- Are, or have ever been, incarcerated
- Have ever shared tattoo or piercing instruments
- Have ever used injection drugs
- Have had unprotected sex
- Have lived in an area where there are high rates of HCV
- Have received a blood transfusion or organ transplant in Canada prior to 1992 or in any country where the blood supply isn’t screened for HCV
- Have received chronic hemodialysis
- Were born between 1945-1975
For more information on the activities that can lead to HCV transmission, visit CATIE.
Being part of the baby boomer generation classifies you as having a risk of having contracted HCV. Research shows that people born between 1945-1965 are 5 times more likely to have contracted HCV than other adults. Although not completely explained it is thought that many of the transmissions occurred between 1960-1980 due to the following:
- Before 1980, there was not the same level of attention given to universal precautions and infection control practices.
- Since HCV can live in the body for many years without causing any symptoms, it’s possible to have been infected decades earlier and not know.
- Widespread screening of blood and blood products hadn’t begun yet, therefore a chance of infection through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
If you don’t have any symptoms, why should you bother getting tested?
HCV can be working in the background, potentially damaging your liver and causing scarring. Over many years, the scars on the liver makes it more and more difficult for that organ to function, and about 25 per cent of those infected develop more serious liver problems such as cirrhosis or cancer. Having an HCV test identify an infection allows your health care provider to treat the condition appropriately and hopefully prevent serious medical problems before symptoms even develop.
A simple blood test can pick up whether there is any of the virus in your bloodstream. Ask your physician or nurse practitioner to order an HCV test for you, or visit one of the many testing locations throughout the North. If your test is positive, additional follow-up testing will be ordered to determine whether you have an active infection or if you were previously infected.
If you get tested for HCV and the results turn out to be positive, it means that you have been infected with hepatitis C at some point in your life. For about 15 per cent of those infected, their bodies are able to fight off the virus on its own. However, most people will go on to develop chronic HCV. At first, a diagnosis of HCV may be quite shocking. You might even go through a period of denial. However, medical treatment has come a long way and, for most people, HCV can be cured!
Doctors and nurse practitioners, along with their colleagues like pharmacists, social workers, and dietitians, across the region can help get you on the path to the right treatment for you. In addition, there are several agencies in within the North with a mission to assist and support those who are living with HIV/AIDS. They can offer information, support and other resources that will help you make important choices about your care and treatment. Many of these organizations also provide an opportunity to connect with others who are living with HCV, which can be greatly beneficial. There are also many online resources to help you learn about living with and being treated for HCV.
From anywhere in the North, you can also self-refer to Northern Health’s HIV and Hepatitis C Specialist Support Team. This team of health care providers can support you with readiness for treatment, connections with primary care, advocating for access to programs, and much more.
Most people who have an HCV infection require treatment. Through additional blood tests, as well as liver function assessment, your health care provider will determine the best course of treatment for you. Antiviral medications can eliminate the HCV and prevent serious liver problems from developing. Treatment is well tolerated and highly effective (95-99 per cent), and now most cases of HCV can be cured! The length of treatment depends on several different factors, but in some cases, it can be curative in as little as 8 weeks. It is possible for people to be re-infected with HCV, so it is important to always practice harm reduction in order to prevent re-infection.
Talk to your family doctor, nurse practitioner, or contact the HIV/HCV Specialized Support Team. If you have further questions about HIV or any other topic about your sexual health talk to a registered nurse at the BC Centre for Disease Control.
For more information about the administrative team who support chronic disease services, see the Regional Chronic Disease Program.