Hepatitis C rates are increasing in Nova Scotia and experts say more education is needed to combat the disease.

About 5,000 Nova Scotians have the infection, which spreads through the blood and damages the liver. It’s a chronic condition caused by the hepatitis C virus. Only Nova Scotia and P.E.I. saw rates increase in the number of new cases.

Adam Dolliver, program coordinator of the Hepatitis Outreach Society, said it’s unclear why more people are contracting it.

"There could be a whole lot of reasons. It's really difficult to say why people are being infected. IV [intravenous] drug use is a risk factor, but there are others," he said.

Ten years ago, about 250 new cases were diagnosed. This year, it was close to 300.

Dolliver says about 70 per cent of hep C patients in the province are intravenous drug users.

Dirty needles

Jason Kearnes learned he had hepatitis C three years ago.

"You should always have clean needles on hand. I screwed up a couple times. And I knew I was going to catch it," he said in Halifax.

Kearnes said he knows of more and more people becoming infected.

Dolliver said education is key to reducing infection rates. People can reduce the risk by never sharing drug needles or equipment, wearing latex gloves before contacting someone else’s blood, practicing safe sex and making sure a tattoo parlour uses sterile tools.

"People in Nova Scotia just don't realize that it is as much of an issue as it is. We know that hepatitis C is ten times more prevalent than HIV/AIDS in Atlantic Canada. And people just don't know that," he said.

Nationwide, about 250,000 people have the disease. While it has existed for a long time, Health Canada says it was only identified in 1989. It causes an inflammation of the liver, which can cause cirrhosis. An estimated 20 per cent of infected people don’t know they have it and are at risk of passing it on.

It says you are most at risk for HCV infection if you:

  • Inject or snort drugs or have done so in the past. The risk increases if you share needles, straws, pipes, spoons, cookers and other drug equipment which could be contaminated with blood. Cleaning equipment with bleach does not effectively kill the virus.
  • Were exposed to contaminated blood or blood products or had an organ transplant before 1992.
  • Get a tattoo, body piercing or acupuncture using unsterile equipment or techniques.
  • Are pricked by a needle or sharp equipment that has infected blood on it, in a workplace situation such as a healthcare facility.
  • Are exposed, either in Canada or abroad, to medical or dental practices where infection control precautions are not taken, or contaminated equipment is used.
  • Share personal care articles such as razors, scissors, nail clippers or a toothbrush with an infected person.
  • Have unprotected sex with an infected person.

A mother with HCV can also pass on the infection to her infant at birth.