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Cool Aid work on Hepatitis C receives world-wide recognition

Ground-breaking research on improving access to hepatitis C testing and treatment
Cool Aid Community Health Centre clinical nurse lead Kellie Guarasci with the Mobile Health Clinic Cool Aid Outreach van. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

The Cool Aid Community Health Centre and its health outreach programs have been recognized by experts around the world for its ground-breaking research on improving access to hepatitis C testing and treatment.

Kellie Guarasci, the clinical nurse lead at the health centre, travelled to London to gave a presentation of the centre’s care model at the European International Liver Congress in June. The congress, hosted by the European Association for the Study of the Liver, featured delegates from 114 countries who had come together to discuss the latest science in hepatology.

She presented the team’s ground-breaking research on improving access to hepatitis C testing and treatment.

Delegates heard how Cool Aid’s health outreach team began contacting people living with hepatitis C in 2018, going into their homes, to shelters, pharmacies and supportive housing sites, including those set up during COVID-19. The program uncovered about 150 people, including those who have limited contact with the healthcare system, who were unaware they had the disease.

“Testing and treating hepatitis C is a global issue,” said Guarasci. “We work with our community partners and do the testing within the context of primary care.”

Hepatitis C affects about 71 million people worldwide with many unaware they have the disease, which shows no symptoms in the early stages. If left untreated, the disease can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection only transmitted by blood. In the majority of cases people get infected through sharing drug-use equipment or getting tattoos or piercings in a non-sterile studio. But people can also contract the disease through sharing personal hygiene items like razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers.

In some cases, people who test positive do not identify with any of the above risk factors, which is why hepatitis C screening is universally recommended.

In the early 1980s close to 30,000 Canadians contracted the disease after receiving a blood transfusion or organ transplant, due to hospitals unknowingly using contaminated blood products.

“So many people say to me: ‘I don’t do drugs, so I don’t need to be tested’,” said Kathy Joyce — known as Mamma Bear by the street community — a peer support worker with Cool Aid. “A good nine out of 10 usually test positive.”

She was diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C 11 years ago. “I was walking around with it, without knowing it.” She received treatment and is now healthy. To give back to the community and prevent unnecessary deaths, she accompanies nurses during Cool Aid mobile health clinic visits.

“Testing is quick, easy and extremely accurate,” said Marion Selfridge, research manager for the Cool Aid Community Health Centre. “And because one-quarter of people living with the disease don’t even know they have it, testing is also extremely important and our best shot at eliminating this disease for good.”

It takes about one and a half days for collected blood to be analyzed. Once confirmed, it takes between two to seven days for the antiviral medication to be prescribed.

The treatment consists of taking pills for eight or 12 weeks. If people choose to take three pills a day, the treatment is complete in eight weeks. If they decide to take only one pill a day, the course of treatment stretches to 12 weeks.

While there are a number of medications on the market, they all work by interfering with the protein that helps the virus to grow.

Side effects to the medication are usually minimal. While some patients complain of headaches, nausea or feeling fatigued, others report no symptoms at all.

In British Columbia, the cost of the medication is covered under Pharmacare.

If you wish to get tested, or are interested in treatment, contact the Cool Aid Community Health Centre at 250-385-1466.

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