Hepatitis C: Knowing Your Risk Can Save Your Life

Were you born between 1945 and 1975? If so, you might not know you’re at an increased risk of having hepatitis C.

Canadian Liver FoundationPhoto: Canadian Liver Foundation

From 1945 to 1975, the world saw many medical innovations, including the invention of the first heart-lung machine, the first artificial heart and the first human liver transplant. This crucial time in history also saw an increase in the number of people who contracted hepatitis C.

Seventy-year-old Greg Powell has lived in Alberta most of his life. As a retired emergency physician, he was no stranger to detecting illnesses, but despite his medical background, he did not recognize any signs or symptoms which would have made him think that he had hepatitis C.

The greatest number of Canadians with hepatitis C are people born between 1945 and 1975. It is believed hepatitis C transmission spiked in baby boomers after World War II, through a possible combination of an increase in medical procedures, the use of glass and metal syringes, and contaminated blood products (prior to screening of the blood supply).

In and out of the hospital from a young age, Greg was diagnosed with hemophilia B, a genetic disorder caused by a missing or defective blood clotting protein. Regular blood transfusions were a normal part of his life. It was through one of these transfusions that Greg contracted hepatitis C, but he wouldn’t find out until almost a decade later when it was discovered in his blood stream.

Hepatitis C is caused by a virus that attacks the liver and puts those affected at risk of developing complications including cirrhosis, liver cancer and ultimately death from liver failure.

One of the largest concerns is that hepatitis C comes without warning, and signs and symptoms often don’t appear until the liver is severely damaged. Undiagnosed and untreated chronic hepatitis C is causing increases in liver cancer and is the number one cause of liver transplants in Canada. More than 80 per cent of Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 are unaware that they are at higher risk of having undiagnosed hepatitis C, making them vulnerable to life-threatening liver damage. It is also estimated that up to 70 per cent of people born between 1945 and 1975 remain undiagnosed.

“I went from being told a liver transplant may not change my outcome in the long run, to finding out there’s a cure and eventually waking up one morning, putting my feet on the ground and feeling normal,” says Greg. “Testing is so important and there are treatments available that can cure almost everyone in as little as eight weeks.”

The hepatitis C antibody test is a simple blood test covered by all provincial health care plans. The Canadian Liver Foundation urges Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 to ask their doctor about being tested so if needed, they can get treated and be cured. For more information about hepatitis C, and to access the Canadian Liver Foundation’s hepatitis risk questionnaire, visit http://www.liver.ca/ThisIsYourWarning.

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