THUNDER BAY - With hepatitis C rates declining across the country, Thunder Bay continues to struggle with the disease that can remain hidden for decades.
It is estimated that one in 50 people in Thunder Bay are living with hepatitis C and in order to raise awareness about the disease and the risks, Hep Net, a coalition of local organizations, is hosting a series of public awareness events as part of World Hepatitis Week.
“We have high rates of hepatitis C, higher than provincial rates and we really need to make people aware of the services that are available, encourage people to get tested, and seek treatment, care, and support when they need it,” said Tonya Muchano, HPV and IDU community developer with Elevate NWO.
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease transmitted through blood and can cause liver disease or even cirrhosis. Often an individual may show no signs or symptoms of infection for years, or even decades, which is why Muchano said getting tested is so important.
“People can get tested, get diagnosed early, there is a higher likelihood that they may change their behavior, they may take a healthier approach to things, and be able to get treatment,” she said.
Muchano stressed that hepatitis C can be treated and there are supports in the community to help those who have been infected.
However, that has not always been the case, and Tannice Fletcher-Stackhouse, a nurse practitioner with Liver Care Northwest, said Thunder Bay’s steady infection rate of hepatitis C is a result of a lack of services in the past and a persistent drug problem in the present.
“One has been lack of access to treatment in the past,” she said. “There has been very limited access to infectious disease specialist, now there are a variety of clinics in town that are providing that service. The rate has been steady probably in relation to our high IV drug use.”
“There are a lot of factors driving hepatitis C in Thunder Bay, as there are all across the country,” Muchano added. “A big factor is the ongoing opioid crisis and drug crisis. One of the main routes of transmission of hepatitis C is through injection drug use, or sharing any drug use equipment.”
There are other risk factors as well, including people born between 1945 and 1975 who have higher rates of infection and Fletcher-Stackhouse encourages anyone born within that time period to be tested even if they are not at high risk.
All this week, Elevate NWO is providing drop-in testing at their Cumberland Street location and at all Ontario Addition Treatment Centre clinics. A barbeque and screening will also be held on Wednesday, July 26, along with a second health fair at Intercity Shopping Centre on July 28.