Love your liver 0
Firefighter Gary Hails is a baby boomer with a message: Get yourself tested for hepatitis C. Though hepatitis, a viral infection that affects the liver, has many forms, it's the C version that's recently hit the news. A couple of weeks ago, the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control recommended that all boomers get tested for the infection, which often remains undiagnosed but ultimately can be fatal.
Due to a variety of factors including unsafe injection practices (in poorer parts of the world, it was not uncommon for doctors to reuse needles that were swabbed down but not necessarily sanitized to today's standards), the '60s drug culture, and improperly screened blood transfusions, those born between 1945 and 1965 make up more than two-thirds of all patients with hepatitis C, says Toronto Dr. Morris Sherman.
The hepatitis C blood test is not part of most annual check-ups, adds Sherman, a liver specialist with Toronto's University Health Network and Chair of The Canadian Liver Foundation. "But get yourself tested. At least once."
One of the reasons the CDC is recommending wider testing is to stress to people that if only those with a perceived risk or symptoms are tested, many will be missed.
Like hepatitis A and B, C is also a virus. While A causes acute illness, it can resolve on its own, Sherman explains. But C is like B, he adds.
"While some patients may clear the virus on their own, the majority will be infected indefinitely. C causes inflammation in the liver which in turn causes scarring. When you have enough scar tissue the risk increases for cirrhosis with all its complications including internal bleeding, liver cancer and liver failure."
Hails contracted hepatitis C in 1972 during a blood transfusion. "A few months after I got out of hospital, I went to try to donate blood and was told I couldn't." His blood had been infected with hepatitis C.
Hails says he spent 15 days in intensive care because of the motorcycle accident that required him to receive a transfusion. The accident didn't kill him, but the hepatitis C nearly did. The tenacious virus requires him to inject himself with an interferon-based treatment. This is his second round of injections.
"The first was unsuccessful. The virus is sleeping in my liver. It's like an angry bear that wakes up."
The latest available Health Canada records indicate that at least 230,000 Canadians are infected with hepatitis C, says Sherman. He figures that with the addition of thousands more each year, the numbers are likely closer to 260,000 today.
"We have a significant portion of our population infected with this disease, and the majority don't know they have it." While today up to 70% of patients can be cured, in the near future the cure rate will climb as treatments improve.
Only when the liver fails are there symptoms, he says. "That's part of the problem, because if there were symptoms people would be diagnosed sooner. When the liver fails, there is jaundice, internal bleeding, muscle wasting, an increased predisposition to infections, and a general sense of feeling lousy. It's in everybody's best interest to know whether they have hepatitis C or not, to protect themselves and their loved ones, to assess the severity of the underlying liver disease, and to get treatment if needed."
Your liver is the organ responsible for processing most of the chemicals and medications that enter your body. This leaves it vulnerable to acute or chronic liver disease caused by chemicals.
A, B and C are viral infections of the liver. There are vaccines available for A and B, but not for C. It's estimated there are 170 million people worldwide infected with C. In Canada, C is the leading cause of liver transplants. For more, go to liver.ca.
Lowering the boom
According to the Centers for Disease Control, people born between 1945 and 1965 account for more than 76% of all hepatitis C infected individuals in the U.S.