By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Most cases of Hepatitis C (Hep C) are not reported. According to the CDC, an estimated 3.2 million people in the United States have the disease with many having no idea they are infected.
“When you are first infected you don’t feel it, or if you do it might just be like a flu symptom,” said Lauren Bode, an intern with the Public Health Service working for the summer at the Cherokee Indian Hospital Pharmacy. “Of 100 new infections that happen, we’re only going to catch seven of them.”
She said that on average, 15 percent of all people newly infected with the disease will spontaneously clear the disease from their body, but the remaining 85 percent are going to have the chronic disease and 5 percent will die.
“Eighty-five percent of all people who have Hepatitis C don’t even know they have it,” said Bode. “Since 2007, more people have died from Hepatitis C than HIV.”
Bode related that education is important in the fight against Hep C. “We hear, with quite regularity, about the prevention of HIV, but there’s been sort of a silence around Hepatitis C.”
“If we don’t get the Hepatitis C infection under control in the Cherokee community, this statistic is going to become true for us.”
The CDC defines Hep C as “a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus, which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.”
Bode said that one-half of all cases of liver cancer and one-third of all liver transplants are due to Hep C. “While it’s a disease that remains silent for a long time, you may not feel ill while you have it until you are very, very ill. That’s why it is so important to catch it early, and most of all, it is way more important to prevent people from getting it.”
She said that illicit drug use and the sharing of infected needles and straws (for snorting drugs) has been the main way Hep C has spread in the Cherokee community. “Even if you bleach your needles and syringes, it doesn’t necessarily kill Hepatitis C.”
Bode also said that people getting tattoos in non-sterile environments is a problem. “Get your ink, but get it in a licensed shop by a licensed tattoo artist that is trained in cleaning equipment and their work area.”
“There are definitely people at risk in our community due to their behavior. It is very serious.”
While prevention is key, all is not lost if you contract the disease. There is not a vaccine, but there is a cure.
“We can cure Hepatitis C. It’s a very complicated drug regimen, but the treatment has really advanced over the past few years,” said Bode.
EBCI tribal members and those eligible for care at the Cherokee Indian Hospital can received free Hep C tests by either making an appointment with their primary care provider or simply dropping in at the Hospital. Those not eligible for services should contact their local county health office.
A small blood sample is taken and two tests are performed from that blood including checking for the presence of certain antibodies and checking the levels of the virus itself in the blood.