The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named May as Hepatitis Awareness Month. The federal health organization wants to raise awareness of what it calls a “hidden epidemic.”
May 19 is declared as National Hepatitis Testing Day.
Swope Health supports the awareness efforts and encourages our community to get tested and learn more about viral hepatitis.
The ABCs of Hepatitis
The CDC offers explanations of the primary types of viral hepatitis: A, B and C.
Hepatitis A is a contagious liver infection, caused by the Hepatitis A virus. The virus can make you sick, and you can spread the virus. There is a vaccination for Hepatitis A, and numbers of cases have declined dramatically. People who are at the greatest risk of Hepatitis A are those who use drugs, experience homelessness, have liver disease, or are or recently were in jail. In addition, men who have sex with men are also at risk.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis B virus. People who are infected can have lifelong infection, and over time, the disease can cause serious liver damage or cancer. Hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine, which is recommended for all infants at birth. This disease is most common in Asia, the Pacific Islands and Africa.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the Hepatitis C virus. Most people who are infected will have lifelong infection, which can cause serious problems including liver disease or liver failure, or cancer. This disease spreads through contact with blood from an infected person. Most people become infected by sharing needles or syringes in injected drug use. There may not be symptoms of disease. There are an estimated 2.4 million people living with the disease, and many may not know they are infected as they may not have symptoms. Baby boomers (born between 1945 – 1965) make up about 75 percent of those positive for the virus.
Hep C Treatment at Swope Health
In 2019, Swope Health launched a program for Hepatitis C Treatment. Led by Rachel Melson, Doctor of Nursing Practice and Outreach Clinic Director, this program focused on increasing testing for Hep C, and helping those with Hep C obtain treatment.
Since the program began, Dr. Melson has treated and cured over 150 patients. The current treatment is an antiviral drug, a pill that is taken once a day for 8-12 weeks. These antiviral drugs are more than 90 percent effective in curing the disease. “Cured” means the patient has no active Hep C virus in the body three months after finishing the treatment.
“We rarely get to use the word ‘cure’ in medicine,” she said. “But this is such an effective treatment that we have actually been able to cure Hepatitis C. And we could see it eradicated in our lifetimes.”
Anyone who has tested positive for Hepatitis C can call Swope Health to participate in the program – regardless of insurance coverage or ability to pay. For more information, call the Hep C Nurse at 816-321-3604.
If you are unsure of your Hep C status, you can ask to be screened at Swope Health. All adults age 18 and older should be tested at least once, and continue to get routine testing if they have risk factors or conditions including HIV infection, injection drug use, recent incarceration or are receiving dialysis.
Dr. Melson has been recognized for her success with the Swope Health program. She participates in the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Viral Hepatitis Stakeholders Group.
With this group, she has developed a Hepatitis C “toolkit” for other healthcare organizations. The 30-page toolkit includes guidelines for staffing, processes, and clinical practices to help other clinicians ramp up testing and develop specific Hepatitis C practice areas. She will also be providing guidance to other clinicians in the state who are starting to treat Hepatitis C through the Show-Me ECHO platform.
She has been named to a state task force and will present her program and tools for success at a virtual conference supported by Medicaid, the Missouri Primary Care Association, and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
“I want to ensure everyone has access to testing and treatment for Hepatitis C,” she said. “To see an end to Hepatitis C, we need more people screened, we need more providers treating Hepatitis C, and we need improved ways to connect people to that care.”