Back in 2004, Harley Syyong was well on his way to becoming a dentist. But halfway through UBC, the dental school forced him to withdraw.
The school had received the results from his blood tests a standard procedure for students in the medical field. Syyong had Hepatitis B.
I was devastated and angry, said the 31-year-old. I felt pretty misled. I had no idea I had it. I just felt unsupported.
There werent a lot of resources out there at the time.
Syyong still doesnt know how he was infected. He was born in the Philippines before vaccinations were a common practice and believes he must have contracted it before his family moved to Richmond.
I grew up here. In Grade 6, I got all the shots that everyone gets, said the Steveston secondary graduate. But these vaccinations didnt do anything for me. I already had it.
The BC/Yukon Canadian Liver Foundation is trying to raise awareness about liver diseases such as hepatitis and cancer.
The foundation held a media conference on Tuesday to introduce its inaugural Stroll for Liver fundraiser a 5K walk at Garry Point Park on Aug. 17.
The province has the highest rate of hepatitis per capita in Canada, according to the foundation.
Its the silent killer, said Elena Murgoci, the regional director. Hepatitis B and C can lay dormant for 20 to 30 years because the liver doesnt have pain receptors.
Once symptoms start to show in mid-life, it can be too late. By then transplants are needed or cancer is present.
One in 10 Canadians have a form of liver disease like hepatitis a number that might be increasing to one in seven, according to Murgoci.
People just arent paying attention, they dont think the liver is an important organ, she said. You should be getting tested regularly. Everything thats consumed or put on your skin is filtered through your liver. We call it the environmental protection agency.
For Syyong, his diagnosis came as a shock to him. Since he felt perfectly fine and received vaccinations in school, he didnt get regular blood tests.
Once he saw a specialist to take care of his physical health, he was still at a loss of who to turn to for emotional and social support.
People arent willing to talk about it because theres a stigma attached, he said.
They think youre doing drugs or things you shouldnt be doing. So that keeps discussion under wraps and leads to this huge lack of awareness about liver diseases.
Like diseases such as HIV or AIDS, theres also a stigma about how hepatitis can be transmitted.
But also, like those diseases, it can only be passed on through an exchange of bodily fluids.
I knew about the disease and had been vaccinated, said Syyongs wife Christine, who is five months pregnant. So I knew I would be perfectly fine. The baby will too. Well have him vaccinated at birth, which is standard procedure.
But at first, the stigma concerned Syyong. It wasnt until 2009 he realized he needed to do something, that keeping silent about his disease only fed into the stigma.
He decided to volunteer for the Canadian Liver Foundation.
He organized a support group for people with Hepatitis B, which had its first meeting last week.
We have a doctor there as well, but we try to keep it informal so that people can feel safe and ask questions, he said.
A lot of people [at the meeting] were recently diagnosed and didnt know what to expect.
The treatment of Hepatitis B depends on when the individual was diagnosed. Syyongs body learned to co-exist with the disease because of his young age.
If he hadnt been tested, his system wouldnt have exhibited symptoms until mid-life when extensive damage would have already been done.
Besides his work with the foundation, Syyong now attends medical school at UBC.
Like Canadian dental schools, there are guidelines and policies regarding his infection, which can affect what type of medicine he can practice.
They look at how many viral particles are in your blood, he said.
If there are a lot, obviously surgery is out of the question.
That was the case with dental school since youre working in close quarters with someones mouth, you need to be careful.
I want to get into family practice. The family physician is the first point of contact so its a good place to start raising awareness for diseases like this.
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