It's Your Health
This article was produced in collaboration with the Public Health Agency of Canada.
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Hepatitis C is a chronic liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). An estimated 250,000 people in Canada are infected with HCV. Because many people do not have symptoms when they are infected, it is important for those at risk to take action to avoid infecting others.
Although HCV has existed for a long time, it was only identified in 1989. HCV causes inflammation of the liver, which can progress to cirrhosis (extensive scarring that can affect the normal function of the liver).
In 2007, nearly 8,000 individuals were newly infected with HCV. About 20% of those infected are unaware of their infections. With initial (acute) HCV infection, less than 25% of those infected have symptoms. Some people recover from their infection, but 75-85% progress to the chronic (carrier) state. People with chronic hepatitis C may not have symptoms for decades. Approximately 35% of those who have chronic hepatitis C, do not know that they are infected.
HCV is spread through contact with infected blood. In the past, many people became infected through blood and blood products. Now, between 70-80% of HCV transmission in Canada is due to injection drug use. This includes the sharing of contaminated needles and other drug-using equipment, such as straws, pipes, spoons and cookers.
You are most at risk for HCV infection if you:
A mother with HCV can also pass on the infection to her infant at birth.
HCV attacks the liver, an essential organ that acts as a filter for chemicals and toxins that enter the body. The liver also helps in the digestion of food, stores vitamins and minerals, and aids in the manufacture of blood.
Although 75-85% of infections move on to chronic hepatitis C, progress may be slow. As most people who are infected do not experience symptoms and are unaware of their infection, they are not able to benefit from available treatment that may clear them of the virus. They may also unknowingly spread the virus to others.
For those who do experience symptoms, the most commonly reported ones are:
After 10 to 20 years, chronic hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis. After 20 to 40 years, it can cause liver cancer.
If you think you may be at risk for HCV infection, see your healthcare provider. The infection can be detected by a blood test.
Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent HCV infection, but effective treatment involving a combination of the drugs interferon and ribavirin is available. Treatment can take from 24 to 72 weeks. The effectiveness of the treatment depends on a variety of factors.
You can reduce your risk of HCV infection by following these steps.
In 1998, the Government of Canada established the Hepatitis C Prevention, Support and Research Program (the Hepatitis C Program). The Hepatitis C Program strives to:
To learn more about the details of the Hepatitis C - Quick Facts
To learn more details about Reports and Publications - Hepatitis C & STI Surveillance
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Updated: May 2008
Original: may 2002
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health 2009