Those born 1945-1965 most likely to have infection
Blue Ridge Health is offering comprehensive services and treatment for hepatitis C in Western North Carolina.
An infection of the liver, hepatitis C is the single most common blood borne infection in the United States. Of those infected, 75-85 percent go on to develop a chronic infection without treatment. These infections often lead to serious health problems including liver disease, liver failure and liver cancer – and many who carry the disease are unaware.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people born from 1945-1965 are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. Most people with hepatitis C do not have any symptoms and do not know they have the infection. Today, the most common way people become newly infected with hepatitis C is through injection drug use. Exposure to infected blood can occur from receiving a contaminated blood transfusion, a needle stick injury and even birth to an infected mother. All these factors make routine screening for the infection critical.
BRH is providing a bridge counselor to help educate and connect patients with the screening and care they need.
A new, alarming trend of diagnoses has been identified among young adults who use injection drugs in primarily rural, underserved areas. WNC, in particular, has experienced spikes in hepatitis C and injection drug use that have firmly taken hold across the region. Over the past five years, North Carolina has experienced an increase in reported acute hepatitis C cases by more than 300 percent; with the highest rates reported in Western counties.
In response to this growing trend, BRH is working diligently to make sure those at risk are screened and treated when needed. While there has been a surge among young adults who contract the disease through IV drug use, the baby boomer population remains the most likely new diagnosis due to unregulated blood transfusions decades ago.
Whether or not a patient has insurance, if they are identified as at risk, screening is free.
“Here at BRH, HCV screening is considered a standard of care across our clinics,” said Isla Neel, bridge counselor for Blue Ridge Health. “We recommend that anyone born between 1945-1965 or those at risk for other reasons, be screened. It’s better to know and be linked to care than to suffer long term health consequences or transmit the disease to others.”
Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine available to prevent hepatitis C. However, there are treatments available that can cure the infection. Blue Ridge Health staff members can help connect patients with resources appropriate for their income and insurance status. Since 2017, BRH has screened more than 7,000 patients for hepatitis C infection and nearly 350 tested positive for the disease. Of those patients that sought treatment for the infection, 100 percent were cured completely.
Treatment used to be a years-long process of injections and negative side effects that deterred people from seeking treatment. That hesitance to seek treatment, in turn, made it more likely for the disease to be transmitted. However, in recent years, developments in treatment have made it a much more comfortable process, and it is now 95 percent successful for those who pursue treatment in a clinical setting.
Like all services that BRH provides, fees are assessed on a sliding scale based on income and household size, and no one is turned away for an inability to pay.
“It is our mission to provide a universal model of care where all of our friends and neighbors in WNC can access the care they need at a price they can afford,” said Dr. MaryShell Zaffino, chief medical officer for BRH. “Treatment for a hepatitis C infection is critical to avoid serious health complications and potentially death. It is our policy that everyone who seeks screening or treatment at one of our practices will be afforded an opportunity to be healthy.”
Those interested in learning more should contact BRH today. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 692-4289 or visit brchs.com.