The first World Hepatitis Day was held in 2008. In July 2010, the World Health Organization endorsed July 28th as an official global health awareness day in honor of hepatitis. The World Hepatitis Alliance coordinates World Hepatitis Day internationally.
Today, about 500 million people worldwide – one in 12 – are living with chronic viral hepatitis B or hepatitis C. In Canada, an estimated 600,000 people have viral hepatitis, with many unaware of their status.
We are in an exciting era with hepatitis C (HCV), with treatments that can cure over 90 per cent of people with few side effects in about three months.
However, for many people accessing the full continuum of services for their care can seem unclear and difficult. They need more information about, and a greater understanding of, access to testing services and linkage to care, including these new treatment options.
At every stage of the HCV journey service providers can walk alongside people and offer support.
Learning about HCV:
In Canada, just under half (44 per cent) of people with HCV don’t know they have it. Service providers play a key role in reaching these people and connecting them to testing, care and support.
Key groups that are affected by HCV include Indigenous peoples, people who use injection drugs, immigrants and newcomers from HCV endemic countries, prisoners and older adults. Unfortunately, many of these groups are often the least likely to access testing and care.
Since HCV treatment used to be very difficult to take, some diagnosed people may not know that treatment has improved dramatically in the past few years. Service providers can help tell this story so people have a clearer idea of their options.
Understanding HCV testing:
It takes two tests to find out if a person has HCV. Service providers can help explain what the tests mean and provide critical emotional support throughout the testing process.
Receiving a positive diagnosis:
Testing positive for HCV can be a difficult experience for many people. Again, emotional support from service providers is key to making the experience more bearable.
Service providers may be able to provide their clients with reasons to feel hope in a difficult moment by letting them know that people can live a long time with HCV and that there is treatment that can cure people.
Getting connected to care:
Service providers are the critical link to connect people diagnosed with HCV to care and treatment.
Given that many people with HCV experience discrimination related to drug use, connecting people with non-judgmental care is critical.
Some people with HCV face other difficulties such as racism, homelessness, food insecurity, mental health issues and trauma. Some people with HCV may also be dealing with issues other than having HCV. For these people there may be “windows of opportunity” where emotional readiness, relative stability and other factors come together to make it the best time for treatment.
Through providing support for these issues, service providers help people in their HCV journey. Some with HCV may need support to decide when is the best time to start treatment. If a person wants treatment, they may also need help to access funding programs that cover the cost of medications. Clients may not be eligible for treatment or want to go on HCV treatment. In these cases, service providers can help people stay connected to care, including offering liver monitoring and addressing other health and psycho-social issues.
People who inject drugs may not think they are eligible for treatment because they use drugs. But a recent clinical trial has shown that people who use drugs have similar cure rates to people who don’t use drugs. With this knowledge, service providers can advocate with people who inject drugs for access to HCV treatment.
Getting through treatment:
Even though HCV treatment is easier to take, some people may need support getting through treatment. Service providers can work with people to make a plan for taking medications, managing side effects and communicating with their healthcare team.
Life after treatment:
People may still need support even if they are cured through treatment. For people who had limited access to healthcare before HCV treatment, getting connected to care may have provided them with the health and social supports they never had before. Also, anyone with severe liver injury (cirrhosis) needs to be tested regularly for liver cancer.
Through keeping people connected to care, service providers can support people to prevent re-infection and to maintain the stability and social connections they may have gained through the treatment process.
With improved treatments many more people will be cured. For the minority who aren’t cured, service providers can be a key source of emotional support and information about taking care of their health and future treatment options.
For lots of people, the HCV journey is full of twists and turns but service providers can help make the passage a lot smoother!
This content was originally published by CATIE, Canada’s source for HIV and hepatitis C information