Did you know hepatitis C (HCV) infection rates may be up to 10 times more prevalent in urban communities than HIV? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than three million people may be infected with the virus and most of them don't even know it. But one Philadelphia program is trying to raise awareness about this disease even if it means going door-to-door.
Drexel University College of Medicine's Stacey Trooskin, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases and HIV Medicine, is part of the "Do One Thing, Change Everything" campaign aimed at combating not only HCV, but also HIV, in medically underserved communities in Philadelphia. It's one of the first of its kind in the country and aims to dramatically stimulate HCV and HIV testing in communities with high rates of infection. Philadelphia is serving as the campaign's model city, with plans to offer it in other cities in the future. The program utilizes a unique mobile lab that offers free, rapid testing for both diseases.
"Hepatitis C is a hidden disease in many Philadelphia communities because of misconceptions about the disease and lack of access to testing and care," says Trooskin. "This campaign is aimed at tackling both of those issues through the rapid, mobile testing lab and through community education events."
HCV is a viral infection that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation which prevents the liver from functioning normally. Most infected people don't know they have the disease because they exhibit no symptoms. In fact, people who have HCV are usually diagnosed with it because liver damage has been detected during a routine exam, sometimes decades after the infection occurs.
HCV can either be acute or chronic. Acute is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months after someone is exposed to the virus. For most people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. Chronic HCV is long term. That means the virus has remained in a person's body for quite some time. It can last a lifetime and can lead to serious liver damage, including scarring (cirrhosis) or liver cancer.
"There are so many people who may be infected and simply don't know it. We are trying to change that. We want people to know their HCV status," adds Trooskin. "For those at the highest risk, the mobile testing lab is a quick and convenient way to get tested, find out your status, and get linked to care, so if indicated, individuals can begin treatment so HCV doesn't progress further into liver disease." Current treatment regimens for those with HCV can cure more than half of those infected, and there are even more effective therapies in the drug development pipeline.
Per the CDC, HCV is usually spread through contaminated blood, most often through shared needles. This explains why the disease is so prevalent in drug users between 18 and 30. The virus is also prevalent in the older generation of drug users because blood-borne diseases were poorly understood in the late '70s and early '80s. This is the group of people who may not even know they have contracted the virus for years. Before screening began in 1992, HCV was also spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants; it is rarely spread through sexual contact, but it is possible. A mother can pass HCV on to her unborn child. HCV is not a disease that can be contracted through casual contact.
Learn more about the "Do One Thing, Change Everything" campaign – a collaboration between Drexel University College of Medicine and Brown University School of Medicine. Detailed information about upcoming mobile testing sites and education seminars is also available.