Area residents screened for hepatitis C on Sunday

By MICHAEL ALAN GOLDBERG
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Monday, May 20,2013

 


Volunteer medical staff conducted blood tests to screen area residents for hepatitis C on Sunday in Lansdale. (Michael Alan Goldberg/The Reporter)

 

LANSDALE — Fingers pricked, and then fingers crossed, about two dozen people sat in a makeshift waiting room inside the Lansdale United Methodist Church on Sunday afternoon, anticipating the results of an antibody test to determine if they are infected with the hepatitis C virus.

It was part of National Hepatitis Testing Day 2013, so designated by the Centers for Disease Control as a means to generate awareness of a virus that afflicts millions of Americans — many people have no knowledge that they’re infected — and can lead to chronic, potentially deadly liver disease.

Sunday’s free screening in Lansdale, coordinated by the non-profit healthcare organization CrossLink Medical Resources and held from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m., focused primarily on the North Penn area’s burgeoning Egyptian population.

“Egypt has the highest prevalence of hepatitis C in the world, and we have a lot of immigrants that have recently come here over the past few years,” said CrossLink founder and president Sandra Khalil, who’s also the daughter of Egyptian immigrants.

“We’re trying to help provide a link to care — to get them screened and help them navigate the healthcare system to get access to treatment if they need it,” she said.

On hand Sunday to assist Khalil in screening an expected 200 individuals from the Egyptian community with a recently approved hepatitis C antibody rapid test were 50 volunteers, many who spoke both English and Arabic: Nurses drawing blood samples, lab technicians analyzing those samples, doctors providing education and counseling and others helping guide people through the church during the registration and screening process.

“People have a lot of misconceptions about hepatitis C,” said Dr. Sameh Boktor, adult viral hepatitis prevention coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, who was present on Sunday to advise those who may have tested positive for the virus about the next steps, and to educate others about preventative measures to avoid contracting the disease.

“People think they’re protected because they got vaccinations for it, but that’s (the less severe) hepatitis A and B — there are no vaccinations yet for hepatitis C,” said Boktor. He added that in addition to the Egyptian population, baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 constitute another high-risk group, as rates for hepatitis C infection were at their highest in the 1970 and 1980s.

Due to patient confidentiality concerns, Khalil would not say whether anyone who got screened on Sunday tested positive for the virus, but Dr. Wayne Miller, an infectious diseases physician affiliated with CrossLink who was also there on Sunday to counsel people, said that they “fully anticipated” at least a few people testing positive.

“We’re spending a lot of time educating people as they wait for their results,” said Miller, pointing to a YouTube video about hepatitis C, in Arabic, playing on computer screens in the waiting area. “If someone comes up positive, we’ll spend at least 30 minutes with them explaining what that means and how they can get further medical evaluation.”

A positive test, Khalil elaborated, “means that they would have to go to the next phase of testing — another blood test to confirm the diagnosis — and then from that point we would help them with obtaining insurance and things like that so they can get proper treatment.”

According to the CDC, hepatitis C is the most common chronic bloodborne infection in the U.S., with about 3.2 million people chronically affected.

Hepatitis C is typically transmitted via large, repeated exposure to infectious blood, and much less frequently via sex with an infected partner or by sharing personal items contaminated with infectious blood, such as razors, the CDC states.

Among those at increased risk for the disease are current/former injection drug users and recipients of blood transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992.

Of every 100 people infected with hepatitis C, CDC statistics show, 75 to 85 will develop chronic infection, 60 to 70 will develop chronic liver disease, five to 20 will develop cirrhosis over a 20-to 30-year period and one to five will die from the consequences of chronic infection, be it liver cancer or cirrhosis.

“What we’re doing here today is really important because this is a communicable disease, and we’re all here because we care,” said Khalil. “And we want to make sure there’s treatment for people in this community, because screening is just the first step.”

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