Low hepatitis testing rates could spell big trouble for Saskatchewan residents

·2 min read

Saskatchewan could be in for a post-pandemic tsunami of hepatitis C cases as testing rates drop by the thousands in a province already boasting Canada's highest rate of infection.

According to a hepatitis C nurse specialist with the Saskatchewan Infectious Disease Care Network, fewer people are getting tested and treated for hepatitis C during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Well, we've got a pandemic of COVID-19, I think we're going to have a pandemic of hepatitis C globally," said Lesley Gallagher.

Statistics from the Roy Romanow Provincial Lab show hepatitis C testing dropped from more than 70,400 tests done in 2019 to just under 55,000 in 2020.

Gallagher said this number reflects what she sees in her Saskatoon clinic every day. People infected with hepatitis C risk spreading it to other people and causing liver damage to themselves if they are unaware they have the virus, according to Gallagher.

Shifting priorities

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the focus of governments, health-care workers and clients to the coronavirus and away from other infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C, Gallagher said.

She said fewer people are coming to her clinic seeking testing and treatment.

"So I think we're going to have to answer to that down the road."

Gallagher said prior to the pandemic, provinces had started organizing steering committees aimed at eliminating hepatitis C. Those programs were put on hold as the pandemic took over.

Gallagher noted the surge in drug overdoses during the pandemic doesn't bode well for Saskatchewan's future hepatitis case count.

"New diagnoses are driven nowadays by injection drug use and the sharing of all equipment involved."

According to Health Canada, people engaging in drug use are at particular risk of contracting the virus.

Saskatchewan's isolated population and poverty rates are also factors in the province's high rate of hepatitis C infections, Gallagher said.

Health Canada lists Saskatchewan as leading all other provinces in rates of hepatitis C infection.