The vaccine was the world’s first practical and proven barrier against the hepatitis C virus, which is responsible for up to 100,000 deaths annually, half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the campaign’s report, up to 3 million new cases of hepatitis C infection could be prevented over the next two decades if all Ontarians were to get the vaccine.
None of the 20 people interviewed by the campaign — who ranged in age from 14 to 95 — had ever gotten the third dose. According to hospital officials and federal health data, that’s a common trend across the country: Just 42% of Ontarians have been vaccinated against hepatitis C, versus 67% in Ontario. In the United States, 73% of enrollees receive three doses of the vaccine.
Unvaccinated Ontarians are at greater risk of transmission to those infected with the virus, who often die of a relapse when the hepatitis C virus takes hold. But that toll may be even greater if one of the potential risks of the vaccine was that it increased people’s risk of developing liver cancer. According to the WHO, whooping cough is the most common reason for liver transplantation in Ontario, and approximately 80% of people who develop active hepatitis C will develop cirrhosis within 15 years and die of cancer.
But while the third dose may be the most vulnerable to not receiving, according to Kathleen Bobryk, the campaign’s director of family advocacy, “neither parents, nor pharmacies, nor health care providers seem to have heard or paid much attention.” Just like other hepatitis C infections, not everyone infected with the virus develops symptoms, which can range from painless flu-like symptoms to severe long-term inflammation of the liver that leads to cirrhosis and cancer.
Brycen Scott, a retired professor from the University of Windsor who was interviewed by The Gleaner, didn’t receive the vaccine at all. “I am 78 years old,” he said, “and I didn’t get the third dose… because I just did not think I could afford it.”
Last year, the Ontario government finally improved the costs for all Ontarians to get the vaccine through discounted or free clinics. At the same time, the World Health Organization announced a recommendation that the third dose be administered at a much earlier age than what was recommended by the Canadian government. Scott pointed out that though he feels better about getting the virus now than he did four years ago, “this does not make up for the needless suffering I had to suffer because I did not get the third dose,” Scott said.
The WHO recommendation was immediately supported by the Canadian Public Health Agency, leading Ontario to fall into line with other provinces. So far, there has been no indication that the third dose will become another barrier to vaccination.