Montréal sans HépC: a fight to eliminate HCV in Montreal
To highlight World Hepatitis Day, the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) is proud to share some exciting news: the launch of Montréal sans HépC, an initiative to make Montreal the first city in North America to eliminate hepatitis C (HCV), a virus that affects an estimated 34,000 Montrealers.
Three renowned doctors spearheaded the project including one of our very own: Dr. Marina Klein, research director of the Chronic Viral Illness Service at the MUHC and senior scientist at the Research Institute of the MUHC (RI-MUHC). The visionary team behind Montréal sans HépC also includes Dr. Christina Greenaway, an Infectious diseases specialist and Research Scientist at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology at the Lady Davis Research Institute, Jewish General Hospital, and Dr. Julie Bruneau, addiction medicine physician at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM) and scientist at the Research centre of the CHUM.
“Every single person I talk to is really excited about this project,” says Dr. Klein. “They see the potential for an incredible chain reaction.”
Much of the buzz surrounding Montréal sans HépC is due to the innovative, community-oriented approach it will take toward tackling HCV. By involving frontline workers like nurses and community doctors to penetrate populations that are most vulnerable to HCV, Montréal sans HépC will offer a treatment plan that is both targeted and time-sensitive:
“HCV treatment is much easier than it used to be,” explains Dr. Klein. “What once required weekly injections for a year with serious toxicity has since been replaced by one or two pills taken once a day with virtually no side effects. In most cases, HCV treatment does not require the intervention of a specialist. We are capitalizing on such progress by going directly into affected communities, ready to test and treat.”
For a disease that is relatively easy to cure, HCV continues to behold some disheartening statistics: an estimated 71 million people are affected worldwide, including 250,000 Canadians. According to Dr. Klein, this unfortunate reality is mostly the result of two intertwined barriers to treatment: lack of awareness and stigma:
“Here in Canada, HCV is most commonly associated with the use of injected drugs. Many Canadians simply don’t think about getting tested. In reality, Canadians born between 1945 and 1975 may have unknowingly acquired HCV decades ago when healthcare practices like blood transfusions and equipment sterilisation were more lax.”
“Our desire to cure this infection isn’t just about restoring health to the body,” she adds. “It’s about restoring dignity by helping to end stigma.”
While it is true that HCV can be acquired a number of ways, the virus does predominantly affect people who inject drugs, Indigenous populations, migrants, men who have sex with men and the homeless –unfortunately, the same groups who also tend to feel most alienated from health services.
“We are excited to see how Montréal sans HépC will change the way medical experts interact with stigmatized populations,” says Dr. Bruneau. “We strongly believe this initiative is going to have positive impacts well beyond Hepatitis C.”
To those worried they may have contracted the virus, Dr. Greenaway is keen on highlighting just how curable it is:
“Over 95 percent of people are cured after as little as eight to 12 weeks of treatment. Once cured, your liver can start to heal and you no longer have to worry about passing the virus to someone else. “
Montréal sans HépC responds to the much broader vision of the World Health Organization (WHO) which has set out to eliminate HCV as a public health threat by 2030. It is also one of the flagship programs of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity (MI4) which, supported by the MUHC Foundation, brings together an impressive team of over 250 researchers and clinicians dedicated to the treatment of infectious and immune threats to human health.
“We’re going to nip HCV in the bud,” says Dr. Donald Sheppard, director of MI4 and chair of Microbiology and Immunology at McGill University. “All Montrealers will have access to these treatments regardless of their cultural or socioeconomic background. This is an amazing opportunity that not every city can provide. ”
A healthy liver is vital. It contributes to the digestion process, stores vitamins and minerals, filters chemicals from our body and produces the blood and proteins we need in order to stay alive. In most cases, HCV symptoms don’t develop until well after the liver has already been damaged. The longer HCV goes untreated, the more it poses a risk for other ailments to develop such as diabetes, heart disease, rare forms of lymphoma, and mental health issues. By taking HCV seriously, Montréal sans HépC isn’t just going to save livers – it will save lives.