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Vermonters urged to get tested for hepatitis C
  May 12, 2007
By Mel Huff Times Argus Staff
BURLINGTON - The Vermont Department of Health is urging people most likely to have been exposed to hepatitis C to get tested for the disease.
"Hepatitis C is a silent infection," said Patsy Tassler, a Department of Health epidemiologist. People can be unaware that they harbor the hepatitis C virus until it starts causing liver disease and other problems.
In Vermont, 61 percent of cases of hepatitis C are found in men and 57 percent are seen in people over 40. People can be infected for decades before having symptoms.
"Lots of people who don't consider themselves at high risk are infected," Tassler said. "If you have any risk factors, even decades in the past, you should ask for a test and know your status. There are preventive actions to protect your liver and prevent spreading the infection."
Hepatitis C, a potentially fatal liver disease, is among the most common blood-borne illnesses. In Vermont, it is the second most commonly reported communicable disease: In 2006, there were nearly 900 newly identified cases. Based on national statistics, as many as 12,000 Vermonters have hepatitis C, the health department stated.
In a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers reported that hepatitis C infection was associated with a 20 percent to 30 percent greater risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a lymph tissue cancer. They also found that the hepatitis C virus was more than three times as common in U.S. veterans who used the Veterans Affairs health care system as in the general population: 5 percent of those veterans were infected with the virus.
The study, which involved hundreds of thousands of veterans cared for at VA facilities between 1997 and 2004, was carried out by Dr. Thomas P. Giordano and colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine and the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston. Risk factors for hepatitis C include:
# Using needles, syringes and other "works" that have been used by other people and may have infected blood on them. (Even injecting drugs one time decades in the past can result in infection, Tassler said.)
# Having received a blood transfusion, a blood product like plasma or a solid organ transplant before July 1992 from a donor whose blood was infected with hepatitis C. (Since July 1992, the blood supply has been screened, Tassler noted.)
# Receiving long-term kidney dialysis. (The number of times you go through dialysis increases the possibility that you've come in contact with something that is contaminated, Tassler explained.)
# For health care workers, frequently contacting blood on the job, especially through accidental needle sticks.
In March, the health department started a new program that offers free and anonymous hepatitis C testing at the syringe-exchange programs in Burlington, St. Johnsbury and White River Junction.
People can also ask their health care provider for a test, Tassler said. Medicaid and VHAP cover hepatitis C antibody and viral testing. Medicare does not pre-approve testing but reviews requests for payment and covers it if it is "medically necessary."
If providers request the test because they believe a patient is at risk for the hepatitis C infection, the test would be considered medically necessary, according to the health department.
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