Background of the Hepatitis C Research Initiative

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Infection and Immunity (CIHR-III) and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are working collaboratively to support, promote and enhance hepatitis C associated research and training in Canada.

Hepatitis C is a highly transmissible virus that can lead to chronic liver disease. Hepatitis C is a major global health problem with an estimated 130 million to 150 million people infected worldwide.

In Canada, the PHAC estimates that in 2013, the overall reported rate of hepatitis C infection in Canada was 29.55 cases per 100,000 people. In 2011, it was estimated that over 461,000 Canadians had a history of hepatitis C infection. Of these, an estimated 220,000 to 246,000 people were chronically infected with hepatitis C. About 44% of those chronically infected were not aware of their infection status or were likely undiagnosed.

Transmission of HCV among people who inject drugs is now the most significant contributor to overall HCV rates; the majority of recent HCV infections in Canada occurred through the sharing of drug preparation and injection materials. Although some are able to overcome the virus, the majority of persons infected with HCV are chronically infected. Following a long latency period of one to three decades, up to one-third of those infected are expected to develop cirrhosis followed by end stage liver disease. While no vaccine exists, treatments are available for HCV infection. Current therapies can be very expensive. As a result, the burden of HCV on health-care and social systems is considerable and therefore prevention and the need to control hepatitis C transmission cannot be overemphasized. Such a focus requires collaboration between researchers and practitioners from multiple disciplines and health research pillars.

In 2015, PHAC and CIHR funded a National Hepatitis C Collaborative Network. This investment of close to $5 million supports research in two overarching streams: biomedical and clinical research; and research with direct public health relevance. The primary objective of this investment is to create a cohesive, collaborative research program in Canada that links researchers, knowledge users and decision makers from multiple pillars and jurisdictions across the country.

Canada continues to experience a downward trend in HCV rates; however, the burden of infection will continue to increase as chronically infected individuals develop severe illness.

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