Hepatitis C 101: Protecting High-Risk Baby Boomers and Vulnerable Communities From the Silent Epidemic

I talk and write a lot about the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS and other health disparities on communities of color and other vulnerable populations. During Hepatitis C Awareness Month this past May, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc. (NBLCA) joined with other groups and organizations to educate and inform our communities about this often-invisible virus that has become a silent epidemic in the United States.

Left untreated, the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes potentially life-threatening liver damage. African Americans are twice as likely to be infected with HCV than non-Hispanic whites and are also twice as likely to have chronic (lifelong) rather than acute (non-recurring) Hepatitis C. Four times as many African Americans and Latinos have Hepatitis C than have HIV.

At highest risk for HCV infection are baby boomers -- people born between 1945 and 1964. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of the 3.2 million adults with HCV in the U.S. are baby boomers. Most don't even know they are infected, and without treatment, their risk of developing serious and even fatal liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, greatly increases.

On the June 5 premiere of Health Action Radio, the weekly, hour-long radio series presented by NBLCA on WWRL1600 AM in New York City, I moderated a discussion about Hepatitis C with Gloria Searson, president and founder of the Coalition on Positive Health Empowerment (COPE), and Hadiyah Charles, Hepatitis C Advocacy Manager at the Harm Reduction Coalition.

According to Ms. Searson, the majority of available information indicates that the lifestyles lived by many people in the 1970s, many of them baby boomers, exposed them in large numbers to the blood-borne Hepatitis C virus. (Many people were also infected during medical procedures before 1992, when the U.S. introduced universal blood product screening.) In fact, Ms. Searson indicated that many baby boomers have been living unknowingly with the virus for as long as 30 years. This is so because there are often no telltale signs of infection. She said baby boomers should be tested and screened not only for HCV but also for all seven types of hepatitis that exist.

Ms. Searson also noted that the co-infection rates for Hepatitis C and other diseases in communities of color are high. African Americans often fall through the cracks of the health care system because many access medical care only through emergency room visits. And, because instances of Hepatitis C are now based mostly on self-reporting, detection is difficult.

There are currently two ways to get tested: Ask for a blood test from your physician or go to an organization such as COPE for a rapid finger stick test, and within 20 minutes you will receive the results. If you don't have the virus, you will receive counseling and information that will help you prevent future infection. If you do test positive, you will be referred to appropriate and affordable care and treatment.

HCV is an epidemic and silent killer in the U.S. today, and we must be proactive about measures that will prevent its spread and help those at risk gain access to treatment. NBLCA fully supports New York State legislation A1286/S2750, which would require health care providers and hospitals to offer those born between 1945 and 1964, with their consent, screening for the Hepatitis C virus (HCV).

As Ms. Charles of the Harm Reduction Coalition pointed out, this legislation, if passed, may be a first-in-the-nation law that could be the "first domino" to fall that will prompt other states with a high HCV prevalence to follow suit.

Policy prompts action and influences budgets. It is imperative to get this legislation passed and signed into law. Since our legislators are working on behalf of us, their constituents, we want them to know that we support this ground-breaking, farsighted proposed legislation.

Please take action and call your state senator to encourage him or her to support A1286/S2750. There is information on the Harm Reduction Coalition's website to assist you in contacting your representatives. You can also help us show our state legislators that we have mobilized broad support for the measure by attending a rally in Albany on Tuesday, June 11.

Advocates, academics, medical professionals, legislators, policy experts, citizens, non-profit organizations, faith-based institutions, and others must work together to highlight and remedy the dire health consequences of Hepatitis C in our communities. We must have, as President Barack Obama has said so many times, all hands on deck.