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Hepatitis C poses a silent crisis in Albany NY
  Health experts say most victims don't know they have a curable disease

By Cathleen F. Crowley

ALBANY - A dozen women from health clinics, local hospitals and government agencies met in the basement of the Albany County Health Department on Thursday morning to talk about a crisis they say is spreading silently through the region: hepatitis C.

Nationally, the number of deaths related to hepatitis C - about 15,000 annually - has surpassed HIV deaths.

"But unlike HIV, hepatitis C is curable," said Colleen Flanigan, a nurse who is the viral hepatitis coordinator for the state Department of Health's AIDS Institute.

The meeting was part of an effort to build a task force aimed at improving screening and treatment of hepatitis C in the Capital Region.

About 5,000 people in the region were diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C between 2001 and 2009, but health officials say the number of infected people is likely to be three times higher.

"A lot of people are infected with hepatitis C, and most don't know it," Flanigan said.

It is estimated that 200,000 New Yorkers have the disease. Those at highest risk are intravenous drug users because the infection is spread by contact with blood.

Hepatitis C causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to liver failure. People with the disease also have a higher risk of developing cancer. Seventy-five percent of people with the infection do not notice symptoms until the late stages, sometimes decades after they were infected.

A new test may help identify hepatitis C cases earlier. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a finger prick test that allows patients to be screened for hepatitis C in 20 minutes. In December, the government approved the use of the test outside of laboratories. That means health workers, like those riding in mobile vans operated in the Capital Region by the AIDS Council and Project Safe Point, can administer the test out in neighborhoods.

"With the advent of the rapid test, we have a tool that can improve screening in Albany County," said Dr. Chris Compton, public health physician specialist with the Albany County Health Department.

The state Department of Health is also increasing its hepatitis C initiatives. Later this month, the state will distribute new posters and "palm cards" for patients and health clinics. It is also purchasing thousands of test kits to be distributed to sites around the state.

Next year's state budget includes $2.1 million to improve hepatitis C care at community health centers, AIDS clinics, and drug treatment programs.

When treated, the cure rate for hepatitis C is more than 60 percent. The therapy involves a cocktail of drugs taken over several months, but the regimen can be taxing because the drugs have serious side effects like anemia and depression.

For information about hepatitis testing and treatment in the Capital Region, call the AIDS Council hotline at (800) 201-AIDS. · 518-454-5348 · @cathleencrowley

Scope of the problem

Public health officials say only a third of people with hepatitis C know they are infected. Here's a look at the number of known cases of chronic hepatitis C reported between 2001 and 2009 compared to the estimated number of cases believed to exist, based on the Centers for Disease Control's assumed infection rate of 1.6 percent of population:
County Confirmed cases Estimated cases
Albany 2,318 4,713
Rensselaer 833 2,411
Saratoga 808 3,210
Schenectady 1,088 2,345
Statewide 57,385 200,000
Source: New York State Department of Health
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