An Island Health pilot project is launching in the North Island.

The project will target hepatitis C, a virus that can result in liver disease and other health impacts. It starts this month and will go on for three months. 

Island Health says many people don’t show symptoms, which means carriers may not know they have the virus. The pilot project will help more people get tested and will connect those who test positive to treatment. Island health adds the new medication is highly effective and has few side effects. 

Vancouver Island has one of the highest rates of hepatitis C infection in Canada. According to the health authority, there are approximately 985 people living with the virus in the North Island but haven’t been diagnosed and have not received treatment. 

“We’re trying to find the people who haven’t been diagnosed, along with those who have been diagnosed but not treated and with whom we have not been able to follow up,” says Dr. Charles Mahoney.

Island Health’s Positive Wellness North Island team will manage the three-month pilot project, along with the BC Centre for Disease Control.

Those interested in participating can ask to get tested at their family doctor’s office or at a public health unit. If a patient tests positive for the virus, referrals will be made to PWNI, which will follow up to arrange confirmatory lab work and treatment. 

Island Health says those who may have been exposed to the virus and should be tested include people born between 1945 to 1965, people who received blood transfusions before prior to July 1990, and those who have injected or snorted drugs. 

Hepatitis C is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact. The virus can also be transmitted through improperly sterilized medical equipment, tattoo and piercing equipment, and injection or inhalant drug-use equipment, or by sharing personal items like toothbrushes and razors with others who may be living with hepatitis C. 

Island Health says the pilot project is a small but important contribution to the World Health Organization’s global effort to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. A recent report from the Canadian Network on Hepatitis C estimates that about 250, 000 Canadians are living with hepatitis C. BCCDC’s recent data shows that more than 28, 000 of those live in BC. 

The project will use drugs called direct-acting antivirals, where patients will only have to take one pill a day for an eight to 12-week course. 

“It’s a very effective therapy,” Dr. Mahoney said.

“By eliminating the virus and curing patients of this infection, we not only prevent further liver damage, but we also improve their general health. In addition, we stop the risk of transmission. And finally, the health system benefits from major health-care savings.”

Laurel Gloslee is a Campbell River resident. She was cured of hepatitis C in 2014 through DAA treatment. She says the DAA treatment is much easier than other treatments.

Gloslee is involved in community outreach and runs a support group for those with hepatitis C. She is encouraging others to get checked.

“Everyone should get tested once,” she said.