By GREG JORDAN
GREEN VALLEY — A few at a time ask for testing, hoping the results will say negative. Some get good news, but others learn that what they feared is true. They have hepatitis.
Area people infected with hepatitis are joining millions of others in a grim statistic: one in every 12 people worldwide is living with hepatitis B or C, and the majority of them don’t know they are infected. In the United States, more than a million people live with hepatitis B and five times that number live with hepatitis C. The latter variety is among the top 10 killers of Americans age 25 and older. Worse, symptoms may not appear until the liver has serious damage.
On May 19 a newly-formed organization, the World Hepatitis Alliance, is asking governments to drive improvements in prevention, diagnosis and treatment for people living with chronic viral hepatitis.
Physicians are required by law to report any hepatitis cases they diagnose, said Melody Rickman, RN, of the Mercer County Health Department. Health officials then work to trace anybody the patients may have contact with so they can be informed about the risks.
Personnel at Mercer Health Right, which adjoins the health department, see the human side of the statistics as local people without insurance come to the free clinic in Green Valley for hepatitis testing.
“Yes, we probably get some weeks three, and some weeks 10 people, and we get an average of five a week requesting testing because they have shared needles or live with someone diagnosed with it or have a sexual partner with it,” said Debbie Enigk of Mercer Health Right. “More than 60 percent come back positive.”
According to the state Division of Surveillance and Disease Control, West Virginia had six acute and 2,168 chronic cases of hepatitis C in 2006. Figures of the disease’s rates in each county were not available, but Mercer County has often seen larger-than-average numbers. Enigk said this could be because the county’s residents can reach a free clinic by bus, so they are more likely to seek testing. In Virginia, the Cumberland Plateau Health District reported a total of 189 hepatitis cases of all types between Jan. 2007 and Jan. 2008.
Locally, the disease usually spreads when drug users share the same needle. There have been instances when one needle has been shared among 10 people, Enigk said. But this does not mean the sharing happens all at once; it occurs over time.
“Say they go to John Doe’s place to get their drugs. Ten people who go there over in a week’s time share the same needle,” she explained.
Another statistic makes hepatitis especially tragic. The average range of patients’ ages go from 20- to 32-years-old.
“It’s just sad,” Enigk said. “We’re talking about people having years of their lives ahead of them. At a very young age people just put their lives at risk. It’s very depressing how many young people come in.”
Patients can be treated with a 48-week program using two anti-viral drugs, one injected weekly and one taken orally four to six times a day. The treatment is not a cure, but it can cause the virus to go into remission, Enigk said. There has been some success.
Some people respond well to treatment; their own immune systems fight off the disease. Those who stop using drugs and alcohol increase their chances for recovery; the ones who do best never used drugs or alcohol at all, she said.
Patients are advised to keep their families safe by never sharing toothbrushes or razors; any blood from bleeding gums or shaving nicks can carry the hepatitis virus. It is not a virus that is passed easily by causal contact, but it can live outside the human body for three days or 72 hours.
“That’s not from touching a door knob. It’s body fluid to body fluid, blood to blood,” Enigk said.
Anyone with the following risks should consult a physician about being tested for hepatitis B and C: Used blood transfusions, blood products or had an organ transplant before July 1992; ever used IV drugs; ever shared a crack or meth pipe, or anything else to snort drugs; have HIV; have any tattoos or body piercings; have come into contact with the blood of an infected person.
— Contact Greg Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org