03/28/2013 04:27 EDT | Updated 05/28/2013 05:12 EDT

BC Hepatitis Research Gets $1.9 Million For AIDS-Style Research

VIDEO FROM SENDTONEWS.COMVANCOUVER - The plan to wipe out HIV infection by British Columbia health experts was so successful, they're trying to replicate the idea for the treatment of viral hepatitis.

Concern about viral hepatitis is primarily in immigrant populations, according to Health Minister Margaret MacDiarmid, who announced $1.9 million in new provincial funding Thursday.

She said it's common for people who come to Canada from other countries with less preventative vaccines to have viral hepatitis without knowing it — even those in their "prime."

According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, 25 per cent of hepatitis C cases and most hepatitis B infections occur in immigrants, most of whom were infected in their country of origin.

Four hundred thousand dollars of the new funding will go to the charitable group S.U.C.C.E.S.S — a charity that helps those in the immigrant communities settle into Canada.

The money will be spent on education, awareness and prevention of hepatitis B among the immigrant communities.

The other $1.5 million will be spent on hepatitis B and C research.

Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said he feels his centre has led the way in fighting HIV/AIDS, and he hopes the same can be done for hepatitis.

Montaner's research in HIV/AIDS has been groundbreaking.

He said the centre's successful HIV model — which includes looking at preventative measures, treatment methods and engaging at-risk populations — will also be used for viral hepatitis.

"(We want to offer) a promise of not just an HIV and aids free generation, but a hepatitis B, a hepatitis C and a hepatitis-free generation."

Christine Brodie, chairwoman of S.U.C.C.E.S.S, said viral hepatitis is a significant issue for immigrants from Asia, due to the early vaccine programs not being as "robust" as they are in Canada.

"The challenge with hepatitis B is that people can feel very well for many years as the disease is attacking the liver," she said. "By the time they become symptomatic it is often too late."

Hepatitis B and C can both lead to permanent liver damage if left untreated.

They are considered silent diseases, meaning symptoms can go unnoticed for decades or even a lifetime while conditions like chronic liver disease, cirrhosis and even liver cancer develop undetected.

The primary way hepatitis B is spread is by intimate contact with an infected person, and the most common way hepatitis C is spread is through contact with infected blood.

Babies can be born with either type if the mother passes it on, and those born infected are at the highest risk for long-term, chronic disease.

Dr. Mel Krajden, who specializes in hepatitis at the BC Centre for Disease Control, said there are breakthroughs in viral hepatitis being made already.

He said current hepatitis B treatments are not curative, although most of the current anti-virals are well tolerated and can significantly suppress the virus.

Krajden added that hepatitis C treatments currently can cure about 65 to 75 per cent of infections even though there is no vaccine.

"Current treatments have very severe side effects," said Krajden. "Within the next few years single pills with very few side effects taken for just a few months will be able to cure greater than 90 per cent of infections."

He thinks education is needed because viral hepatitis is associated with a negative stigma, and shouldn't be.

"Stigma hurts people by making them afraid to be diagnosed and cared for."

According to Krajden, approximately 80,000 British Columbians are infected with hepatitis C and 60,000 with hepatitis B.

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