NYC Residents Urged To Pass Hepatitis C Testing
At least one in 50 New York City adults is infected with hepatitis C, according to new findings from the Health Department. But because many are unaware of their infection, they may miss out on the steps needed to protect themselves and prevent transmission. Data from the city's Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that 2 percent of New York City adults - about 130,000 people - are infected with the virus. The actual number is higher because hepatitis C is especially prevalent among the homeless and the incarcerated - two groups not covered by this survey. National survey data yielded similar findings for the country as a whole.
What is Hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C (Hep C) is a blood-borne viral infection that damages the liver. Many people contracted it through blood transfusions before the blood supply was protected in 1992. It is also common among people who have used needles to inject street drugs. Hep C can spread sexually or pass from mother to child at birth, but both are rare occurrences.
Some people can live with Hep C without ever suffering symptoms, but 15 percent of infected people develop cirrhosis - a scarring of the liver that can lead to cancer - and 4 percent of infections are fatal. The infection can progress silently for 10, 20 or 30 years, even when it is destroying the liver. Most people with Hep C are now in their 50s. Many are just now discovering that they were infected during the 1970s and 80s, through blood transfusions or shared needles.
Who Should Get Tested?
Hepatitis C spreads only through blood, not through food or casual contact. The people who most need to be tested are those who have:
* Ever injected street drugs, even just once or a long time ago
* Had a blood transfusion, received blood products, or had an organ transplant before July 1992
* Ever been on kidney dialysis
* Had unprotected sex with many partners, or with a partner who had Hep C or injected drugs
* Received tattoos from someone other than a licensed professional
* Tested positive for HIV
* Been born in a country with a high Hep C rate, such as Egypt or the Soviet Union
"Hepatitis C can be a very serious infection, causing liver disease and death," said Dr. Sharon Balter, Medical Epidemiologist in the Health Department's Bureau of Communicable Disease. "The infection may not cause symptoms for decades, even though it is damaging the liver. If you have ever injected drugs - even once, decades ago - you should get tested. And if you received blood more than 15 years ago, you should get tested, too. If you are positive, treatment is available. There are things you can do to control the virus and stay healthy."
How to Prevent Hep C
There is no vaccine against Hepatitis C. Here is how you can protect yourself:
* Don't inject street drugs. If you do, use a new needle and injecting equipment every time. For more information, go here.
* Practice safer sex by using latex condoms. Avoid sexual acts that can tear body tissues and draw blood.
* If you get tattoos, get them only from a licensed professional
* Don't share toothbrushes, razors, or other personal care items that may have blood on them.
Living with Hep C: Take Care of Yourself
Most people who contract Hep C virus will remain infected for the rest of their lives. But tests can determine whether the virus is active in your body, and medication can suppress it about
50 percent of those who take it. If you are infected, taking care of your liver is critical. Here are of the most important ways to protect yourself:
* Do not drink alcohol. Drinking can make your liver disease much worse.
* Get the Right Medical Care. See a doctor who knows about Hep C - even if you don't feel sick. People with chronic Hep C need regular check-ups.
* Get vaccinated against hepatitis A and B. These are different infections, but they can accelerate the harm that Hep C causes.
* Eat well, rest, and exercise to help your body stay healthy.
* Talk about your feelings. Finding out that you have Hep C can be overwhelming. You may feel scared, sad, angry, confused and upset. These feelings are normal and can get better with time.
Health Department Efforts to Reduce Hep C
The Health Department works with community partners to increase awareness, promote screening, and improve care for Hepatitis C. Efforts include:
* Offering free Hepatitis C testing at STD clinics throughout the city. Over 1,000 people were tested in 2007 at STD clinics and partner agencies. For testing locations, call 311.
* Convening quarterly meetings of the Brooklyn and Bronx Hepatitis C Taskforce. A new Task Force in Queens will meet for the first time this month. These groups bring together community organizations and advocates working together to raise awareness and increase screening and care.
* Providing free training and educational materials to more than 500 health care providers each year.
* Promoting safe needle use and reducing transmission by supporting 13 needle exchanges in the city. Clean needles can prevent Hep C and HIV without causing any increase in injection drug use.