Half of the people infected with hepatitis viruses in Canada don’t even know it and unless they get tested, they might not find out until serious health effects occur.
That was why the Northern Regional Health Authority put on an event at the City Centre Mall on July 28, which is World Hepatitis Day.
“In Canada, for instance, it’s estimated about 600,000 people have hepatitis C and over half of them don’t even realize it,”* says Nancy Vystrcil, a regional sexually transmitted infection (STI) co-ordinator with the Northern Regional Health Authority, who was on hand at the mall on July 28. “It’s really one of those things that’s about early detection and implementing early treatment and so we’re hoping to decrease stigma around testing, which there’s a lot of when it comes to any blood-borne infections, which include HIV and syphilis, which are things that we’re really concerned about in the north because our region does have the highest incidence of STIs in the province, up to five times more STIs occurring per capita.”
Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that can be caused by hepatitis viruses including types A, B, C, D, E and G. The Public Health Agency of Canada says that the most common types of viral hepatitis in Canada are A, B and C, which is what the organizers of the Thompson even were focused on.
“Hepatitis A is transmitted oral-focally through contaminated hands or getting it onto food with fecal matter,” Vystrcil says. “Hepatitis B is blood-to-blood transmission, blood and bodily fluids so it can be sexually transmitted and is one of those infections that does have a vaccine but not a treatment. The hepatitis B vaccine has been provided to every Grade 4 student for the past almost 20 years now in Manitoba so there’s a lot of protection. It provides good protection but not 100 per cent. Hepatitis C is transmitted blood to blood so the hepatitis C virus itself enters via the bloodstream. It’s a very tricky virus in that it can survive off the source, which is blood, for a number of days, up to five to seven days.”
Getting vaccinated, practising good personal hygiene and safer sex are the main ways to avoid getting hepatitis A and most people with a hepatitis A infection recover naturally, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Vaccination, practising safer sex and avoiding items that might be contaminated with blood reduce your chances of hepatitis B and C infections. Hepatitis C is not usually spread through sexual contact but hepatitis B is.
“We’re looking at ensuring that we’re not sharing any sort of utensils such as nail clippers, razors, toothbrushes, that kind of stuff because minute drops of blood can get into someone else’s bloodstream and they can be infected that way,” Vystrcil says, noting that behaviours such as using intravenous drugs can increase one’s risk of contracting hepatitis B or C, as can snorting drugs, which can cause minute abrasions in the nasal or septum areas that provide a path for the viruses to enter the bloodstream.
Though hepatitis infections can cause symptoms such as muscle aches, joint pain, dry itchy skin, chronic stomach pain or yellowing of the eyes early on, those symptoms typically disappear within a few months of the onset of infection.
“You can have it for a number of years without knowing it if you’re never tested for it and then towards the end it can lead to cancer of the liver, it can lead to cirrhosis of the liver,” says Vystrcil. “Your liver is a very vital organ so it’s really important to get tested. If you’ve been engaged in any of those behaviours that have been identified or even know somebody that you live with who has hepatitis C, it’s worth one of those tests to consider as routine care when you see your physician so asking for the whole gamut of blood-borne infection testing. testing for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis C all at once and hepatitis B if you’re not immune. It’s important to access testing on a yearly basis as a baseline and depending on your health behaviours and whether or not they’re higher risk behaviours involved, consider getting tested even more frequently, every six months or so.”
Tests for hepatitis and other blood-borne infections can be done at any health centre or nursing station, as well as at the NRHA’s public health office in Thompson and even at R.D. Parker Collegiate or the hospital emergency department, though Vystrcil advises the ER should probably not be anyone’s first choice for getting tested.
The NRHA is particularly interested in encouraging baby boomers to get tested.
“That is a population that the Public Health agency of Canada has focused on because there was a time in which blood transfusions or blood products were not screened and hepatitis C was transmitted at a higher rate,” she says. Past IV drug use also correlated with hepatitis infections. “A lot of the hepatitis C results I see as a co-ordinator is a baby boomer who’s identified that they’ve used drugs in the 1970s, sharing of needles, et cetera and that is a practice that we’re seeing in the north from my interviewing, that we’re seeing a little bit more drug use.”
In addition to raising awareness and providing information at the World Hepatitis Day even, testing for hepatitis was also provided.
* Clarification: The Public Health Agency of Canada says that 600,000 Canadians have either hepatitis B or C.