"It's exciting to see an innovation that both improves patient care and saves money for our health care system," said Dr. Mel Krajden, medical head for hepatitis for the BCCDC and medical director of the Public Health Laboratory.
"Hepatitis C is the first chronic viral infection for which medical researchers have developed a cure, and now patients can more quickly confirm their status and get the care and treatment they need."
This news comes at the same time as the international community is raising awareness about the millions of people worldwide who don't know they have hepatitis C, by encouraging testing for World Hepatitis Day on July 28. It also comes as medical services in B.C. ramp back up, following efforts earlier this year to free up the health care system to manage COVID-19.
B.C. is now among the first provinces in Canada to adopt one-step hepatitis C testing at a provincial level, which will cut associated health care costs by an estimated $1 million annually.
The High Volume Serology Lab, where the hepatitis C virus antibody test is conducted at the BCCDC Public Health Lab.
Before this one-step process was introduced, patients needed to have two separate blood samples tested to be diagnosed with an active hepatitis C infection. The first test looked for hepatitis C virus antibodies to determine if a person had ever been exposed to the virus. If positive, the person would need to go back to their health care provider to get a second test that looks for RNA, the genetic material of the virus, in order to confirm diagnoses of a current, chronic infection that requires treatment.
Now, the lab can do both tests on a single blood sample, saving each patient at least one visit previously required for follow-up care decisions. This approach will also help to support providers and patients seeking and receiving care during COVID-19 by reducing face-to-face contact time with healthcare providers and laboratories.
"We know about 17 per cent of individuals – almost 9000 people - who tested antibody-positive in BC between 1990 and 2018 never had a follow-up RNA test," said Dr. Agatha Jassem, program head of virology and molecular diagnostics at the BCCDC Public Health Laboratory.
"This new, one-step process will make a huge difference to close that gap and link people with care and treatment before they develop more serious complications."
Implementing the new process required a rigorous validation study and innovation in lab technologies. The new process saves B.C. taxpayers $226 per patient on sample collection, lab technician and health care provider costs.
B.C. has been increasing hepatitis C testing over the last decade to now nearly 280,000 tests annually – the new testing process amounts to up to $1 million in estimated annual cost savings, in addition to improvements in patient care.
Pre-analytical medical laboratory assistants in the BCCDC Public Health Lab (left) and a sample moving through the new testing process (right).
"Going in for multiple medical appointments can be challenging for many people," said Daryl Luster, Pacific Hepatitis C Network board president.
"Streamlining B.C.'s testing process will have a real impact on people affected by hepatitis C by making it easier and quicker to get their test results and access treatment."
An estimated 28,607 people in B.C. are currently living with an active, chronic hepatitis C infection.
The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is to have a blood test. Nearly 280,000 British Columbians were tested for hepatitis C in 2019.
Hepatitis C is a serious, preventable communicable disease that is transmitted through direct contact with the blood of a person who has hepatitis C. Among people who develop a chronic infection, about 20 per cent will eventually develop liver damage (cirrhosis), which can be life threatening and lead to liver failure.
About one in five people living with hepatitis C don't know they have the virus. About a quarter of people who acquire hepatitis C clear the virus without treatment. The remaining 75 per cent develop chronic hepatitis C.
Many people can live for decades without having any signs or symptoms of the virus, but can still transmit it to another person.
In March 2018, the B.C. government expanded hepatitis C drug treatment through the B.C. PharmaCare program to any British Columbian living with hepatitis C, regardless of the severity of their disease. These newer, all-oral hepatitis C drug therapies have few side effects and are highly effective, resulting in cure for more than 95 per cent of people treated.
Once someone is successfully treated and cured of hepatitis C infection, they are no longer able to pass the disease on to others.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection.
The BC Centre for Disease Control, a part of the Provincial Health Services Authority, provides public health leadership through surveillance, detection, treatment, prevention and consultation services. The Centre provides diagnostic and treatment services for people with diseases of public health importance, and analytical and policy support to all levels of government and health authorities. The BCCDC also provides health promotion and prevention services to reduce the burden of chronic disease and preventable injury. For more, visit
www.bccdc.ca or follow us on Twitter @CDCofBC.