What is Hepatitis C/HCV?
Hepatitis C (also called HCV) is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. Some people are able to fight off the virus early on in infection; however, in about three-quarters of people, the infection becomes chronic – meaning that your immune system was not able to fight it off. Once you have HCV the virus is never dormant. Everyone experiences HCV differently, and liver damage occurs at different rates. Until treated the Hepatitis C virus will continue to cause liver damage. Left untreated HCV can lead to severe liver damage (cirrhosis), liver cancer and liver failure (which requires a liver transplant). There are treatments for Hepatitis C, but no vaccine exists to prevent infection.
Based on national 2011 Hepatitis C estimates:
- An estimated 220,697 to 245,987 Canadians were living with chronic Hepatitis C. That is the equivalent of six to seven people out of every 1,000 Canadians (or 0.6% to 0.7% of the total Canadian population).
- An estimated 44% of people living with chronic Hepatitis C infection were unaware of their status (97,107 to 108,234 Canadians).
- 66.0% of people who inject drugs and 28.5% of people who formerly injected drugs were antibody positive for Hepatitis C(2011).
- At the end of 2011, an estimated one out of every 100 Canadians were antibody positive for Hepatitis C, indicating either a current or past infection (Source: Estimated prevalence of Hepatitis C Virus infection in Canada, 2011)
In 2013, there were 147 new Hepatitis C cases reported in Saskatchewan. This puts HCV at a rate of 43.7 per 100,000, which is a decrease of 30% from 2012, but still 50% higher than the national rate.
How is Hepatitis C spread?
Hepatitis C is only transmitted through blood. It is important to remember that blood is not always visible to the naked eye – trace amounts of blood can also transmit the virus. Unlike HIV, Hepatitis C can live for extended periods outside the body. HCV can live for days outside the body, and can easily live for a week inside a needle. The most common ways a person can get infected with the Hepatitis C virus are through:
- Using needles and equipment that have already been used by someone else for preparing, injecting, inhaling or snorting a drug.
- Receiving a blood transfusion in Canada prior to 1992, before blood was effectively and routinely screened for Hepatitis C.
- Receiving a blood transfusion in a country where procedures for screening blood are not effective or routine.
Though less common, a person can also become infected with the Hepatitis C virus in the following ways:
- Sharing or borrowing personal items, such as razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers that contain traces of blood from a previous user.
- Unsafe medical practices that involve reusing medical equipment that has not been properly sterilized. While this is rare in Canada, it can occur.
- Using tattoo, body-piercing or acupuncture equipment that has been reused without being properly sterilized.
- Condomless sex where blood is present (for example, during menstruation or rough anal sex).
- Transmission from an infected mother to a child during pregnancy or delivery (also known as vertical transmission).