Major effort underway to get WNYers tested for Hepatitis C

Jul 29, 2019

Several million Americans and thousands of Western New Yorkers are infected with the Hepatitis C virus. Many don't know they are infected and don't know there is a cure.

Dr. Raul Vazquez runs Urban Family Practice on Buffalo's West Side and sees a range of patients.

"The thing about Hepatitis C is you don't know you have it and it's picked up based on sort of history that clues you to it or some lab findings," Vazquez said.

Hep C is an unusual health problem because most people don't know they have it, even when there is a quick and simple blood test to detect it. If they don't know they have it, they won't have a talk with their doctor about getting the pill which cures the disease in almost everyone. It also is a significant health problem because the long-term health impact can be lethal and it is expensive to the health care system.

"If these individuals develop cirrhosis, the long-term impact is that within five to 10 years later, 50% of them are going to develop some sort of complication and that could be cancer," Vazquez said.

Credit University at Buffalo

There is a major effort to persuade people to be tested from researchers at the University at Buffalo Medical School. That includes telemedicine into rural areas to encourage testing.

Dr. Andrew Talal, professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo Medical School, is a liver specialist deeply involved in research finding ways to persuade people to be tested so they can be cured. Talal said everyone can be checked or doctors can focus on where those cases are found.

"Screening the blood supply is one way to implement and to raise awareness," he said, "and the focus has been increasingly to go to the places where those with risk factors are likely to congregate."

That allows large numbers to be cured. Areas include prisons, where a high percentage of inmates are infected, and drug treatment programs, where at one time the infection rate reached 80%. Talal said emergency rooms are another place testing can be important.

"The prevalence rate can be 8%-11% in some emergency rooms," he said. "ECMC has been screening for the last several years and I think they've had a prevalence somewhere in there between 8% and 11%."

Besides these high-risk groups, Talal said there are significant numbers of the Baby Boomer generation who are infected, but don't know it because they don't fit the usual demographic. He said Boomers would feel better if they were tested, identified and cured.