Liver specialists urge hepatitis C screening strategy in Canada

Canadian liver specialists recommended a national screening strategy among Baby Boomers for hepatitis C in Canada in an article published on Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

The authors said Baby Boomers are the most likely group to have hepatitis C, though most infected individuals don't know they have the illness. Early treatment can cure hepatitis C, but the advanced stage of the disease can cause liver damage.

"Baby boomers are much more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than other age groups," Jordan Feld, one of the authors of the article, said. "Most people who have the infection have no or very few symptoms even if they've been infected for decades. Without symptoms, many infected people have no idea they have the disease until it's too late."

In the article, the authors presented arguments and data in favor of developing and implementing a national screening program for hepatitis C in Canada. The currently recommended Canadian approach is to test based on risk factors, such as receiving blood transfusions or blood products before 1992, using injection drugs or receiving piercings or tattoos in an unclean environment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended screening all individuals born between 1945 and 1965 for hepatitis C virus.

"Hepatitis C has the greatest impact of all infectious disease in Ontario, even more so than HIV, influenza virus or human papillomavirus," Hemant Shah, the clinic and education director of the Francis Family Liver Clinic in Toronto Western Hospital, said. "It's a life-changing diagnosis, yet there is a huge gap in public and healthcare provider awareness about the disease, it's implications and the treatment options for patients."

The authors pointed out that risk-factor based screening was not successful in other countries, including the U.S. and Europe. The authors said the U.S. adopted the new policy after showing that identifying infected people and treating them early could save lives and money.

"Now is the time to consider a national screening strategy," Feld said. "This silent epidemic can be prevented and many more lives could be saved with Baby Boomer screening, follow-up treatment and a major education campaign."

Feld and Shah also pointed out that awareness about the illness should be improved among healthcare professionals.