Mr. Speaker, I want to take this opportunity to talk about an important subject that concerns all Canadians. I am talking about hepatitis C. I want to congratulate the member for St. Paul's for her dedication to this cause and for her efforts to have the month of May recognized as hepatitis C awareness month.
I know the member has worked tirelessly to defend this cause and I am glad she decided to raise the issue in the House.
Earlier this year, a motion to make the month of May hepatitis awareness month was debated in the House. The motion before us today is very much in line with the previous motion.
I will use the rest of my time to talk about hepatitis C and the initiatives taken by Health Canada to deal with this most important public health concern.
Hepatitis C is a virus that can be transmitted by blood. It infects the liver and can cause serious damage. A test to detect hepatitis C was developed in 1989 and was introduced in Canada when it became commercially available in June 1990. Before that, in cases of hepatitis of an unknown type, it was referred to as non-A, non-B hepatitis.
Among the groups most at risk of contracting hepatitis C are those who received blood transfusions before screening for the virus began in 1990, persons exposed to contaminated needles, and health care staff who suffer needlestick accidents with contaminated needles.
It is believed that the risk of transmission to newborns or transmission via sexual contact with an infected person is low.
In approximately 10% of cases, the source of infection is unknown or undisclosed. According to estimates, up to 8% of Canadians--somewhere between 210,000 and 275,000 people--carry the hepatitis C virus.
While some people may experience symptoms such as fatigue or jaundice, many others present no symptoms at the beginning of infection. The hepatitis C virus progresses slowly within the body. Symptoms may take up to 20 or even 30 years to manifest themselves after the initial infection.
In 1998 the federal government, more specifically Health Canada, allocated $50 million over five years to design a prevention, support and research program to assist Canadians with hepatitis C.
In addition, over the next 20 years the government will transfer $300 million to provincial and territorial governments in order to provide the medical care that people with hepatitis C require. This financial assistance guarantees that no Canadians, regardless of where they live, will be forced to pay for needed care and treatment, particularly services and treatment such as new drug therapies and home care nursing.
One of the main objectives of the prevention, support and research program is to educate Canadians and raise awareness about hepatitis C.
Consultations with key stakeholders revealed that the greatest challenge for an awareness campaign would be to inform and educate target groups without frightening them. It is of the utmost importance that messages not create false perceptions regarding the virus, and that they not contribute to stigmatizing those persons who are infected with or affected by the virus.
Among the general public, increased awareness of hepatitis C will help create an environment that is supportive of people infected with or affected by this disease.
For persons who are unaware that they are infected, early diagnosis offers the possibility of adapting their lifestyle to slow the progression of the disease. As well, there are promising developments in treatment options.
The hepatitis C program includes care and treatment support. This component is aimed at raising hepatitis C awareness by making the public better informed about the disease and the risk factors associated with it. During its first two years of existence, the program was aimed mainly at increasing capabilities and developing tools for professionals and other care givers as well as community support groups by providing medical and practical information on hepatitis C.
Prevention and community support are also part of the hepatitis C prevention, support and research program. Community support includes programs aimed at supporting both a strong community response to the needs of people with or living with hepatitis C, and a significant role for community organizations in the program .
Over the past year and a half, Health Canada has financed about 120 community initiatives at the local level, including peer support, hepatitis C education, needs assessments, training and strengthening of community capabilities.
Among the current hepatitis C national initiatives, there is the establishment at the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse of a database on hepatitis C and injectable drugs; the preparation of a series of working and research papers on topics such as injectable drug use and prevention of hepatitis C.
The research component of the program has increased the amount of available research results, bolstered the research community capabilities, and added a wealth of information to the data used to make decisions regarding hepatitis C policies and programs.
This component has financed 27 research projects and 11 research and salary awards through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and has contributed to the financing of a research chair on liver disease at the University of Manitoba Health Sciences Centre Foundation.
Several projects have been financed including HCV-HIV co-infection assessments, the establishment of social networks for injectable drug users as well as a review of the literature on animal models.
In co-operation with the blood borne pathogens division of Health Canada, the research on hepatitis C component has financed better monitoring sites, control of VHC, studies on the economic burden of VHC, and on its prevalence in first nation people and Inuit in four communities.
In partnership with the bureau of HIV/AIDS, STD and TB, the program has financed research on VHC and the young aboriginals on the street.
Finally, the research component has contributed to the creation of the Canadian network on viral hepatitis.
The implementation of the hepatitis C prevention, support and research program is a constant reminder that the Government of Canada is looking after problems such as those raised in the hon. member's motion.
For example, Health Canada supported the proclamation by the Canadian Liver Foundation of the month of March as the Help Fight Liver Disease Month. The hepatitis C virus can cause serious liver diseases.
Health Canada has been one of the main proponents of the first Canadian conference on hepatitis C, held in Montreal in May 2001. This event has been a convergence point for researchers on hepatitis C, caregivers for those affected by hepatitis C and people infected by the virus or affected by the disease.
This instructive conference was an opportunity to present research results, to share ideas, and to update one's knowledge. The Canadian Hemophilia Society, the Hepatitis C Society of Canada, the Canadian Liver Foundation and other not for profit organizations have co-operated with Health Canada so that this conference would be beneficial for all Canadians.