THUNDER BAY – Hepatitis C isn’t running rampant in Thunder Bay.
However, it is present in the city, and globally, nine in 10 people who have it are unaware they have the virus.
Some, says Kyle Lees, can have Hepatitis C in their system for decades without knowing it. The damage being done to their liver could ultimately prove deadly.
Lees, an outreach worker with Elevate NWO, said his organization partnered on Tuesday with the NorWest Community Health Centre to offer free hepatitis C testing, part of a global campaign to find the missing millions infected around the world with the virus, a number estimated to be in the range of 290 million.
“Hepatitis C is a virus that specifically targets the liver. It’s only passed through blood-to-blood contact. Untreated Hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver,” Lees said.
“As the liver tries to heal itself, because it’s the only bodily organ that can do that, it scars itself. The longer someone has Hep C, if they aren’t maintaining their health, it could really mess up their liver and really, the liver is one of the most important organs in the body.”
Other potential setbacks from hepatitis include liver cancer and liver failure.
Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario do carry high rates of hepatitis C, which is somewhat worrisome for Juanita Lawson, chief executive officer of the NorWest Community Health Centres.
“We do know in Northern Ontario hepatitis C rates are high. One of the things (we) are looking at is how we might be able to encourage people to get tested, but then also work with our health-care providers and services that are available to receive treatment, because there is treatment that is available,” Lawson said.
The test itself involves a pin prick in the finger and it takes about 10 minutes from start to finish.
Lawson said they are focused on at-risk groups, including intravenous drug users, but said just about anyone could be at risk.
She cautioned anyone thinking about getting a tattoo to ensure they are using a licensed establishment, and said anyone who undertakes risky behaviours, like needle sharing, should consider getting tested.
“It is important that people understand their personal risks, get tested and access linkages to prevention or treatment services. Early intervention and treatment ultimately mean better health outcomes and fewer new transmissions across the community,” she said.
Testing is being conducted at the NorWest Community Health Centres on Simpson Street.