Las Vegas Sun

July 31, 2014

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Lesser known hepatitis strain getting much-needed publicity

Hepatitis C infects an estimated 26,000 people in Clark County, but only 5 percent of those thousands know they carry the potentially fatal virus.

It can be contracted when people brush their teeth, get a manicure or get a paper cut, and it can lie dormant for more than 30 years.

Those statistics, compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an annual death toll of 10,000 motivated the United Way to donate $93,000 over three years to educate and provide community outreach on the disease.

"No one was doing this work, and we wanted to say that it was important," said Rosemary West of the United Way.

A grant was given to the Community Counseling Center to put together a community awareness campaign.

Most people are familiar with hepatitis A and B, because all food service workers must be tested for these diseases. But hepatitis C is the most widespread and dangerous form of the disease and the one the public is least familiar with. Scientists identified it only 13 years ago and did not find a test for it for another three years.

Awareness is very important to Jody Weiner of Las Vegas, who now volunteers with the counseling center. Her family mistakenly thought she was a drug user after her hepatitis C diagnosis last November.

Ironically, she had visited the center's offices with her disabled son just days before her diagnosis and seen a flier for a hepatitis patients support group. She recalls thinking, "Why would anybody need that?"

Weiner is about to finish six months of treatment she compares to chemotherapy. She gives herself three shots a week that makes her feel worse than any case of the flu would.

Like most people with hepatitis C, she cannot hold a full-time job while undergoing treatment. Although some people are afraid to come forward because they fear losing their jobs, federal law prohibits job discrimination for health reasons such as hepatitis treatment.

Weiner will get blood tests this week to see if she has been responding to the alpha interferon injections she has been giving herself. If she has not, she will be in for another year of shots, perhaps followed by an experimental treatment if she still doesn't respond.

Prevention is not only important but cost effective. Medical treatment is expensive, estimated at $100,000 for those who do not need a liver transplant and $300,000 for those who do and are lucky enough to get one.

The disease is spread through blood-to-blood contact such as transfusions, sharing needles for drugs, body piercings or tattoos, as well as shared nail clippers, razors or even emery boards. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of those patients with the disease do not have known risk factors, doctors say.

The key to prevention is good hygiene -- washing hands, keeping cuts treated and covered, and not mixing blood, which can be done unwittingly by sharing toothbrushes or from a manicurist's failure to use an autoclave, a special process used by dentists and doctors that destroys germs. Unlike HIV's short lifespan outside the body, the hepatitis C virus can live outside the body for a month, Weiner said.

Prevention and early detection require education, which kicked off with a presentation at a retirement home that Weiner helped with Thursday, but she wants more.

Hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne virus. It attacks the liver and the brain, causing depression. Scientists say the body cannot defend against it, because the virus can disguise itself from the immune system. People who have the disease are advised not to drink, because it accelerates the damage to the liver.

There is currently no cure, just treatment that may push the disease into remission.

Fatigue, jaundice or pain in the side are symptoms of hepatitis C, but many people with acute hepatitis C do not exhibit any symptoms until their livers fail. Veterans, people who have been in prison, drug users, exposed health care workers, paramedics or firefighters and those receiving blood transfusions before 1992 are particularly at risk.

Tests for hepatitis C are available but expensive. On the other hand, many groups or government agencies offer HIV tests for free.

For more information on a hepatitis support group call the Community Counseling Center at (702) 369-8700.

Aaron Clemens

is a reporter with the Sun. He can be reached by phone at (702) 259-8810 or by e-mail at [email protected]

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