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After returning from a tour in Afghanistan in 2007, Military Police Sergeant Lance Gibson began planning for retirement with his wife. They were looking to buy their first home and he was set to begin a new career in the private sector.
But Gibson soon learned he was in for the fight of his life.
As part of the release process after 25 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, Gibson underwent a detailed medical review. It revealed he had hepatitis C, a virus that attacks the liver and is spread through blood-to-blood contact.
"Through a trace back of my civilian hospital records it was confirmed that I contracted hepatitis C when I received a platelet transfusion as a teenager," Gibson says. "The disease had been ruining my liver for more than 28 years."
By the time he was diagnosed, Gibson had already progressed to stage 4 liver disease and needed a transplant to survive. His sister stepped up to donate part of her liver as a living donor.
Chronic hepatitis C is known as a "silent" disease because often no symptoms appear until your liver is severely damaged, says Dr. Jordan Feld, a liver specialist at Toronto Western Hospital, and Gibson's pre-transplant specialist.
"We have a huge problem with people going undiagnosed," he says. "The most recent statistics from Canada suggest that about 70 per cent of people with hep C don't know they have it, which is pretty staggering."
Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to scarring of the liver, liver failure and potentially liver cancer. However, if hepatitis C is diagnosed early, it is curable. Once liver disease is very advanced, treatment is far less effective and may not be possible, Dr. Feld says.
While a transplant can give patients a fresh start, the virus is much more aggressive in attacking the new organ. The patient can experience cirrhosis of their new liver in as little as five years if they are not cured of hepatitis C.
Testing for hepatitis C is based on risk factors. These include: injection drug use (even once), receiving blood transfusions or blood products before 1992, piercings or tattoos done in non-sterile environments or receiving a medical procedure in countries where hepatitis C is endemic. In some cases, individuals are uncomfortable talking about high-risk behaviours with a physician. Others do not have identifiable risk factors.
Gibson says he experienced many false accusations about how he could have contracted the disease.
"One of the biggest misconceptions is that hepatitis C is a "dirty disease," he says. "I want to stress that like all infectious diseases there are many ways to contract them, some are unpleasant, and some are of no fault of the patient."
A recent breakthrough in treatment means people with hepatitis C can be cured. But it is expensive and not covered by provincial drug plans. Gibson says he feels very fortunate the Canadian Armed Forces immediately agreed to pay for his treatment.
Current treatments have taken patients from a five per cent cure rate to 95 per cent with a shorter course of medication and fewer side effects.
After receiving news he had been cured of hepatitis C, Gibson has continued to be an advocate for hepatitis C awareness. He and Dr. Feld teamed up to raise funds for the Canadian Liver Foundation and bring attention to hepatitis C by taking part in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon last month.
"We want people to go get a test for hep C, particularly Baby Boomers because the number of cases is highest in that age group and they also have the least awareness," says Dr. Feld. "If you take all the infectious diseases in Ontario, the one that causes the most years of life lost is hep C.
"We need to get this on the radar."
Toronto Declaration is being issued by the Hepatitis Cure and Eradication Meeting 2014 as a call to action to countries around the world to develop plans to prevent, diagnose, treat and ultimately eliminate viral Hepatitis around the world. Learn more about the