High number of Hepatitis C cases in Mesa County

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. It's called the "hidden epidemic" and is more aggressive and infectious than HIV. Hepatitis C starts as a liver infection and can turn into a chronic disease.

According to The Western Colorado Aids Project, Mesa County is one of the highest counties with Hepatitis C cases in Colorado and it's on the rise. WestCAP Director Jeff Basinger estimates that three to five thousand people in Mesa County currently have the disease.

"We have a positivity rate that ranges from 25 to 50 percent of all people we test,” said Bassinger.

Symptoms of Hepatitis C may not show up for years - but some include fever, joint pain, jaundice or vomiting.

Contraction can come from sharing needles, blood transfusions, unprotected sex, and even razors. Unlike HIV, Hepatitis C can be contracted in casual contact

"Hepatitis C will actually stay alive on surfaces outside the body for several days, even in dried blood,” said Bassinger.

The CDC reports that more than 75 percent of adults infected are baby boomers and the VA Hospital said that number is not a stretch.

"People didn’t understand what Hepatitis C was so there were a lot of accidental transmissions,” said Veterans Affairs Hospital Public Information Officer Paul Sweeney.

Basinger said the homeless, drug users, and veterans are also at risk.

"It’s particularly Vietnam veterans because of the injection drug use and the commercial sex during the Vietnam War,” said Basinger. “Many veterans came home addicted to heroin or other drugs of that nature."

According to Sweeney, 150 VA patients have Hepatitis C and the lack of local specialists calls for the tele-medical system - being diagnosed and treated by a doctor electronically.

"This is a way to bring this particular specialty to our rural veterans without forcing them to travel to Denver" said Sweeney.

A new treatment gives hope - it has a 99.9 percent cure rate and is superior to the interferon-based treatment of the past.

"The old treatment was twelve months of horrible chemotherapy,” said Basinger. “These days the new treatments are down to three months and the side effects are 20 percent of what they used to be"

The new Hepatitis C treatment comes with a thousand dollar price tag per pill.

The solution isn't just in a pill however. A veteran with Hepatitis C says it also takes a lifestyle change - No smoking or drinking, plenty of exercise, and a diet of healthy foods.

The Western Colorado Health Network offers free 15 minute rapid Hepatitis C testing without appointment on Mondays and Thursdays at their office on 805 Main Street from 1 to 5 p.m.

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