That, in the opinion of this House, the government should recognize the month of May as Hepatitis C Awareness Month.
Mr. Speaker, one of the honours of a member of parliament is to be able to bring forward initiatives that were truly created in the community. On behalf of the Hepatitis C Society of Canada, the Canadian Hemophilia Society and numerous other organizations I am proud to bring this motion forward.
We presented the motion on March 19. Since that time the Minister of Health, in response to a question by the member for Hamilton Mountain, has indicated his support. We hope today's motion will bring momentum to the issue such that by May we will have this in effect.
One of the toughest things in health care is dealing with diseases that people do not know they have. It is extraordinarily important that awareness campaigns be launched to seek out people who may be at risk but who do not know they ought to be tested.
At the moment between 210,000 and 275,000 people are infected with hepatitis C in Canada. Only 30% of those people know they have the virus. They are therefore at extraordinary risk of passing the disease on to others.
When I graduated from medical school in 1974 we did not even know of hepatitis C. We had a form of hepatitis that was neither A nor B. It is only since 1989 that we have begun to name the disease and learn more about its epidemiology and what needs to be done in terms of prevention.
Like all forms of hepatitis, hepatitis C is an inflammation of the liver. Some people experience severe symptoms such as fatigue and jaundice and go on to develop cirrhosis and even liver cancer. However many people have no symptoms. It is those people we are hoping to help by designating the month of May hepatitis C awareness month to raise awareness among those at risk.
There is a hepatitis C prevention, support and research program within Health Canada. The program, like the first Canadian conference on hepatitis C that Health Canada supported last May, intends to increase awareness, promote positive prevention behaviours, expand research activity and augment the government's capacity to respond to this health threat.
It is important to understand that at the moment the major group of people acquiring hepatitis C are the people most at risk. Some of us saw the documentary on CBC about Joyceville Penitentiary where 50% of the inmates may have hepatitis C. This is an extraordinary health burden in that it is the greatest indication for liver transplant and therefore a huge burgeoning cost to our health care system.
The greatest risk is of course among injection drug users and people who engage in high risk behaviours such as tattooing, body piercing, acupuncture and even inter-nasal cocaine use.
Current research shows that the risks of transmitting hepatitis C through sexual intercourse or childbirth are low. However it is extraordinarily important to note that we are seeing up to 8,000 new hepatitis C infections each year, of which approximately 2,000 or less than one-quarter are clinically recognized as acute diseases.
Some 10% to 20% of persons with hepatitis C go on to develop cirrhosis of the liver. This can prevent the liver from functioning properly and eventually require a liver transplant to prevent liver failure and death. Some 1% to 5% of people with hepatitis C and cirrhosis can go on to develop liver cancer.
It is extraordinarily important that we understand that although there is a help fight liver disease month and many other months, an awareness campaign for this silent illness would be an extraordinarily important step.
Hepatitis C would not get its due in the regular liver month of March. Because it is unique in its scope a specific awareness campaign is necessary. Otherwise it would be the equivalent of calling AIDS just another immune disease and putting it in an immune disease month. It is extraordinarily important that we focus specifically on hepatitis C because of its serious complications and health burden.
There are no comparable infectious diseases in Canada. Even AIDS at the moment does not have as many new infections on a yearly basis. We therefore need an even stronger emphasis on prevention activities for hepatitis C across Canada. A full month of awareness would be an extremely strong format for that. Health Canada could then launch its awareness campaign within that time and benefit from the month of focus.
There are already many activities happening on May 1, including a candlelight ceremony. It could be difficult to co-ordinate a nationwide shift to March should we decide it should be included in help fight liver disease month. The next Canadian conference on hepatitis C will be in May, if not next year then in 2003 or 2004. We feel strongly that by then we will desperately need a month of focus on the issue.
In 1998 Health Canada committed $50 million over five years to develop and design a prevention, support and research program for Canadians living with hepatitis C. It consists of the five components of prevention and targets programming to prevent transmission of hepatitis C among those currently uninfected, particularly high risk youth and injection drug users.
The program includes community based care and treatment support as well as the extraordinarily important research component. Then there is the program's management and delivery. In partnership with other parts of Health Canada there are other programs, including enhanced hepatitis C surveillance sites, research into hepatitis C among aboriginal street youth and the Canadian Viral Hepatitis Network.
On behalf of these important volunteers who feel their work could be enhanced and made easier by the designation as such, I welcome the minister's support on May 17 of this year. I hope we will shortly hear an announcement from Health Canada regarding the issue.