Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut May 09, 2013 - 3:05 pm

Nunavut undertakes hepatitis survey in Baffin, Kivalliq regions

“It is your choice to participate"

This image, derived from an electron microscope, shows the tiny virus that causes the hepatitis C liver disease. (FILE IMAGE)
This image, derived from an electron microscope, shows the tiny virus that causes the hepatitis C liver disease. (FILE IMAGE)

The Government of Nunavut wants to see how effective its vaccine program is in stopping virus that causes the liver inflammation hepatitis B in the Baffin and Kivalliq regions.

A GN advisory says Nunavummiut will be asked if they wish to participate in the research study when they come to their local health centre for routine medical tests that require blood samples.

“It is your choice to participate. Your privacy is assured if you agree to be part of the study. Individual results will not be known, and blood samples are destroyed after testing,” the GN said in a May 9 advisory.

This study, which will also show widespread hepatitis B and hepatitis C are, is being done by the Nunavut health department of Health, the Public Agency of Canada and the University of Manitoba.

In Canada, the estimated incidence of hepatitis B among Inuit is about seven times higher than for non-aboriginal Canadians (0.8 per cent compared to 6.9 per cent among Inuit).

You can get hepatitis B from the exchange of blood, semen, vaginal fluids and saliva. The hepatitis virus can also pass from an infected woman to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth.

You can also get it from unsanitary tattoos and piercing, sharing street drugs (such as straws for snorting and sharing needles for intravenous drugs or steroids), or sex with an infected person.

People infected with hepatitis B may become jaundiced and turn yellow from liver failure.

If you’re infected, changes in the liver can affect your urine, which can turn dark like Coca-Cola, while bowel movements can start looking pale, according to a column on hepatits B that Dr. Madeline Cole wrote for the Nunatsiaq News.

If you’re infected with hepatitis B, your appetite often decreases, and there can be belly pain, nausea, fever, and fatigue.

A very small number of people (less than one in 100) can get a severe initial infection and even die, she said.

But most people’s bodies manage to fight off the hepatitis B virus when they are infected, but they are still very infectious while their body fights the virus off.

And, about one in 10 people with hepatitis B won’t be able to get rid of it and will have it for life — they are called chronic carriers. Although they may live long lives, some will get liver cancer and cirrhosis (a shrivelled up, broken-down liver), Cole said.

Chronic carriers should see a doctor regularly.

All children in Canada are immunized against hepatitis B, and “in Nunavut, we do it soon after birth and this is the best time to do it,” Cole said.

The vaccine is given as a series of three shots and is 90 per cent effective in preventing infection.

But many adults have not been immunized.

The Nunavut sexual health strategy calls to increase the number of Nunavummiut who are vaccinated Hepatitis B —  but there is no vaccine against hepaitits C.

While Inuit may not show high rates of the liver disease hepatitis C, there is little Inuit-specific data on it.

Nunavut has some of the lowest rates of hepatitis C in Canada, and the other Inuit regions also show low numbers.

But the cause for concern is a lack of education about the risks of getting hepatitis C, says Pauktuutit national women’s association, which held a session on hepatitis C earlier this year in Kuujjuaq.

Pauktuuit has developed a five-year plan on hepatitis C among Inuit, which calls for more surveillance and research.

In Canada, there are an estimated 242,500 individuals who are infected with hepatitis C.

But about 21 per cent don’t know they are infected, because many people with hepatitis C don’t show any symptoms.

Hepatitis C, which can produce the same lethal outcome as hepatitis B, can be spread through sharing sharp instruments such as needles and by sharing personal hygiene equipment such as razors or tooth-brushes with an infected person.

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