Hepatitis C tests urged for all baby boomers

Every baby boomer in B.C. and across Canada should seek a blood test for the hepatitis C virus in light of a landmark medical study released Thursday, urges one of B.C.’s foremost experts in disease prevention.

That’s because the peak infection rate for people born between 1945 and 1964 has been found to coincide with five-year-olds in 1950 who were infected by inadequately sterilized needles used in health-care settings, not in 1965, with teens and young adults engaging in high-risk sex and drug-related behaviour involving the exchange of blood.

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“Any baby boomer could be living with HCV [hepatitis C virus] even in the absence of symptoms or any history of high risk behaviours, and as such they should be encouraged to proactively seek HCV testing,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre of Excellence. The B.C. centre undertook the study with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

“One of the reasons why we focus on baby boomers is that they represent 75 per cent of people infected with hep C, regardless of risk groups,” said Cynthia Carter, a Saanich volunteer with the B.C. Hepatitis C Education and Prevention Society.

Many baby boomers were vaccinated around age five, she noted, before hepatitis C was identified or disposable needles became the norm.

The sex and drug link has led to a long and serious stigma against testing among so-called low-risk groups, the upshot being that 44 per cent of Canadians with hep C have no idea they are infected and spreading the virus, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Carter said she is delighted that Montaner is publicly recommending that boomers get tested because the virus can cause damage for decades without symptoms, yet lead to liver cancer and irreversible liver failure.

The high-risk reputation of hep C is “a huge barrier” to diagnosis and treatment, she said, when, in fact, the virus can spread if an infected person with bleeding gums shares a toothbrush with someone who also has bleeding gums. An infected man who cuts his chin shaving and then shares the razor with a woman shaving her legs is another way hep C can be spread.

Provinces and territories should provide screening to detect the disease, which is curable in up to 95 per cent of cases, Montaner told The Canadian Press.

“Hepatitis C is a time bomb and it’s obviously not being addressed appropriately.”

A 2014 Canada Communicable Disease Report estimated 240,000 Canadians were living with chronic hep C infection in 2011, with B.C. residents making up an disproportionately large chunk at about 80,000, Carter said.

Carter contracted hep C through a 1982 blood transfusion and was diagnosed through “a fluke” 32 years later, when her physician checked into a slight elevation of her liver enzymes. “He basically saved my life,” she said. Canada did not screen for hep C in the blood supply until 1992.

Carter, a retired school secretary, said she was cured by taking one pill a day for 12 weeks, thanks to “wonder drugs” with manageable side-effects.

“We recommend that everyone who is a baby boomer go to their doctor and ask for a test,” Carter said. “They don’t have to give any other details.”

Estimates from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control indicate that between 16,000 and 18,000 Vancouver Island residents were tested for hep C between 2008 and 2011.

The study, published in the U.K.’s Lancet Infectious Diseases, involved the examination of 45,000 genetic sequences of hep C.

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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