October 25, 2013

Canada falling behind in tackling hepatitis C

Hepatitis C symposium highlights need for national action plan

Toronto, ON (October 25, 2013) – Today, international researchers will present a compelling case for government action on hepatitis C. The disease can now effectively be screened, diagnosed, treated and often cured. Unfortunately, progress has hit a critical moment; in order to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths and to avoid soaring acute care costs, Canada needs a national action plan to identify, treat and cure more patients with hepatitis C.

“We have the knowledge, the diagnostic tests and an ever-improving crop of therapies that we can use to treat patients,” says Dr. Morris Sherman, chairman of the Canadian Liver Foundation. “However, our ability to help people is hampered by our lack of resources. We have to find innovative and affordable ways to bring advancements to patients; otherwise we will waste the efforts of researchers in Canada and around the world.”

During Hepatitis C Virus: From Discovery to Cure, a symposium jointly presented by the Gairdner Foundation and the Canadian Liver Foundation, Dr. Harvey Alter and Dr. Daniel Bradley, both winners of the prestigious 2013 Canada Gairdner International Award, will recount their ground-breaking work in isolating and identifying the hepatitis C virus. This research led to the development of the first screening tests for the virus.

Leading Canadian and American specialists will join Dr. Alter and Dr. Bradley, highlighting the ongoing challenges in measuring the current and future burden of hepatitis C and in overcoming the social, financial and administrative barriers standing between patients and the care they need.

“It’s incredible how far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned in the last 20 years,” says Dr. Gary Levy, former director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at the University Health Network in Toronto and one of the organizers of the symposium. “Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplantation in this country, but with advances in treatment it doesn’t have to be. Transplants are, and always should be, a last resort, but we are often left with no choice because patients already have advanced forms of the disease by the time they are diagnosed. We should be using what we know to identify patients and intervene long beforehand.”

At Toronto General Hospital, which has the largest transplant program in the country, about 35 per cent of liver transplants performed each year are for patients living with hepatitis C.

Sergeant Lance Gibson was diagnosed with hepatitis C in January 2009 and discovered he had been living with the virus for 28 years after receiving blood products as a teenager. While in the process of being released from the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), his medical examination revealed that he had the disease. As a result, he had to turn down a lucrative civilian position and stay in the CAF for treatment. He received a liver transplant in May 2012.

“While I’m grateful to the donor and the doctors who saved my life, I don’t think that liver transplants should be the answer,” says Lance. “If doctors were routinely testing for hepatitis C, mine might have been identified much earlier and I might have had more options for treatment.”

Canada needs a national action plan for hepatitis C

Earlier this year, the Canadian Liver Foundation’s report – Liver Disease in Canada: A Crisis in the Making – highlighted the gaps in knowledge, care and resources for all forms of liver disease. For hepatitis C, the report called for widespread screening of adults born between 1945 and 1975. This recommendation was supported by Canadian specialists in a recently published Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) article1. The report also recommended changes to how hepatitis care is funded and managed as well as how patients qualify for treatment reimbursement.

“We estimate that only two per cent of the more than 300,000 Canadians living with hepatitis C have undergone treatment,” says Dr. Sherman. “We recognize the financial implications of diagnosing and treating each Canadian with the disease, but if we don’t figure out a strategy now, we will end up spending even more in acute care costs or resorting to transplants to save the lives of patients that could have otherwise been cured.”

About the Canadian Liver Foundation
Founded in 1969 by a group of doctors and business leaders concerned about the increasing incidence of liver disease, the CLF was the first organization in the world devoted to providing support for research and education into the causes, diagnoses, prevention and treatment of all liver disease. Through its chapters across the country, the CLF strives to promote liver health, improve public awareness and understanding of liver disease, raise funds for research and provide support to individuals affected by liver disease.

Media contact:
Melanie Kearns
416-491-3353 x4923

Additional resources:
B-roll is available for download here.

Canadian Liver Foundation’s Report, Liver Disease: A Crisis in the Making can be accessed here.

Canadian Liver Foundation’s Position Statement on Hepatitis C Testing can be accessed here.

1 Canadian Medical Association Journal. A Canadian screening program for hepatitis C: Is now the time? H. Shah, J. Heathcote, J. Feld http://www.cmaj.ca/content/early/2013/09/30/cmaj.121872.extract


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