Hepatitis numbers rising in Alabama

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Staff Report

Nov. 27, 2000 10 PM

It may not be a problem here, but a silent killer is in the midst.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Some 72,000 Alabamians are believed to have Hepatitis C, which may infect a person who may never know they are sick until it’s too late.

Keith Barron of the Pike County Health Department had no local statistics on the disease, but said, "Hepatitis C is on the rise."

As the virus matures in thousands of unsuspecting people, health officials across the nation are preparing for an epidemic of painful and deadly complications from hepatitis C over the next decade.

The threat is being called one of the biggest public health threats of the century.

Dr. J.P. Lofgren, state epidemiologist at the Alabama Department of Public Health, said health officials are seeing "the tip of the iceberg" of what is to come.

Estimates are almost eight times as many Alabamians are infected with hepatitis C, compared to those who have the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Dr. Jorge Herrera, a medical professor at the University of South Alabama and a gastroenterologist who specializes in liver diseases, said spotting the disease can be difficult because patients are reluctant to admit they have had a sexually transmitted disease or have shared needles.

Hepatitis C makes the liver swell and eventually stops it from working. Since the liver fights infection, stops bleeding, removes drugs and other poisons from the blood and stores energy, it is necessary for the organ to function properly.

The disease is spread by contact with an infected person’s blood and not common physical contact.

Those in the high-risk category include those who had a blood transfusion before 1992, injected drugs with a shared needle, snorted cocaine with a shared straw, had frequent unprotected sex or been pricked with a used hypodermic.

But, for those who suspect they are infected, there is help. Early testing not only means early treatment and possible cure, it prevents spread of the disease.

Vaccines are available for hepatitis A and B, but not for C; however patients can be treated with the drug interferon alone or in combination with ribavirin.

Some people with hepatitis C will feel like they have the flu, but many don’t have symptoms.

A blood test of someone who comes under the risk factors is the only surefire way for the disease to be diagnosed and treated before a liver transplant is necessary.