The province is making new medication more accessible for those living with Hepatitis C, but a Manitoba advocacy group says more needs to be done to encourage people to get tested for the chronic liver disease.

On Monday, a day ahead of World Hepatitis Day, the province announced 54 new Hepatitis C drugs will now be covered under the Manitoba PharmaCare Program. One of those drugs — Holkira Pak — has a "cure rate of more than 90 per cent, [with] few or no side effects," the province says.

Kirk Leavesley with the Manitoba Hepatitis C Support Community says that getting tested is still the most important first step — especially for baby boomers.

"One of the big things we're trying to accomplish is to create greater awareness and get testing done by the baby boomers," said Leavesley. "Many people don't know they have Hepatitis C."

Leavesley contracted the disease in the early 2000s, but it took doctors a year to get a clear diagnosis. He experienced flu-like symptoms, low energy levels and chronic sickness.

After about a year of appointments, Leavesley remembers taking a call from his doctor that changed his life.

'It's really nice to have people around them that are going through the same thing.' -  Kirk Leavesley

"It's like the world was spinning around at that moment. I had no idea what it was, what it meant to me, to my future, so it was a pretty traumatic period for sure," he said.

"Once I discovered what I had, there was a sense of relief at understanding at last what was wrong with me, but then the realization of the disease itself left me feeling really lost and alone."

Tattoos and IV drugs

Health Canada categorizes needle drug-users as the group most at-risk of contracting Hepatitis C. Darren Fox, a former inmate at Stony Mountain Institution, said more needle exchange programs behind bars could help stem the spread of Hepatitis C among those doing time.

"I've personally seen some IV drug needles in Stony Mountain, and they were so old and broken up and they're all taped up and really used," said Fox. "[I've seen] guys, you know, just openly sharing needles."

Fox, who now works with former inmates for The John Howard Society of Canada, said tattooing in jails and prisons could also be playing a role in the spread of the disease.

He received a tattoo while he was incarcerated but isn't sure he would do it again.

"Now I would think about it twice. We took every precaution, but it's not a very sanitary environment for us to do tattoos in," said Fox.

Medical advances

The amount of medical information on Hepatitis C available to the public today far outweighs what was considered common knowledge by the medical community a decade ago, Leavesley says, adding treatments are getting more effective every day.

"What we always try to do all along is is educate the doctors, because the doctors didn't know a lot about Hepatitis C back then, and there was no support available," said Leavesley. 

"Once we got the group [Manitoba Hepatitis C Support Community] going, it was really heart-warming.... There's a tremendous amount of support that is gained by meeting together because all these people have struggled for years with Hep C. It's really nice to have people around them that are going through the same thing."

Leavesley wants to provide people with more information about Hepatitis C and encourage them to get tested, as well as to destigmatize public perceptions of the disease.

"I'm pretty excited today about the new era that we've reached in the fight against Hep. C."