A World Hepatitis Day event Thursday in St.George’s Square had a party-like atmosphere.
The air of fun helped loosen the stigma surround the viral infection. This was the fourth year the event has been held in Guelph.
Organizers from the HIV/AIDS Resources and Community Health (ARCH) and Sanguen Health Centre, said it is important right now to spread the good news about a new, improved treatment for Hepatitis C, a disease that slowly attacks the liver.
It was previously treated through a lengthy process. The new approach is much shorter, more effective, and more manageable.
“Part of this year’s celebration is about a lot of re-education about treatment for Hep C,” said Becki Linder, Hepatitis C and youth outreach coordinator for ARCH. “In previous years it has been a lengthy, year-long treatment. And it used to make people really sick.”
She said some would compare the process to going through chemotherapy.
“In the past year or so, we’ve got new medications that involve a lot shorter time period,” Linder added. “People can be on the drug for eight weeks, and these drugs also have a higher cure rate, and don’t make people as sick. We are able to manage the side-effects a lot better now.”
Dozens milled about the square, enjoying a barbecue, taking part in a Hep C trivia contest, and face painting. Confidential, on-site testing for the disease was an important element of the day. In partnership with Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, a Sanguen community health van was parked at the venue for testing purposes.
The event was also a way to challenge the stigma associated with the disease, organizers said. Information on Hepatitis C transmission and prevention was available. Ash Lowenthal, Sanguen support coordinator, said there were about 100 World Hepatitis Day events across Canada on Thursday.
“Sanguen and ARCH draw a lot of folks from all over the place, and also a lot of folks from marginalized communities come out,” she said, explaining the strong turnout.
She said estimates peg the number of people in Canada living with the disease at 250,000, with nearly half of those unaware they have it. The disease is fatal if untreated. The only way to know if you carry it is to get tested.
Once symptoms do appear, they are commonly expressed in the form of fatigue, brain fog, and jaundice. Symptoms only appear after the liver has been damaged. There is a cure. Sauguen Health Centre provides treatment.
Like most cities in Ontario, Guelph has a drug injection problem, and Hep C is common.
“Hep C is a disease that is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact,” Lowenthal said. “Previous to 1992, Canada did not screen the blood supply for Hepatitis C. So a lot of folks who got blood transfusions or organ transplants before then may have been infected. Baby boomers are a huge population that may have it and not know it.”
The on-site testing at the event, she said, enables diagnosis for Hep C and other sexually transmitted infections.
“Another big part of the event is harm reduction,” Lowenthal added. “A prevalent way that it is transmitted is through sharing drug equipment. We are providing a lot of information about how to use substances safely.”