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Hidden Hepatitis Gets No Respect 

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It's the most common blood-borne disease in the United States, and it kills as many as 12,000 people a year.

But Virginia only gets $64,000 a year to fight it.

The Virginia Department of Health estimates that 120,000 to 135,000 Virginians suffer from chronic hepatitis C — that's between 1.5 and 1.8 percent of the population. By comparison, the department says about 21,000 Virginians are known to be living with HIV or AIDS.
Yet in 2009, the Centers for Disease Control allotted $8.7 million to Virginia for HIV and AIDS programs. Viral hepatitis got $64,000.

That money pays for Brian Anderson, the state's adult viral hepatitis prevention coordinator, and his cubicle in the state health-department building. “It's really just me,” he says.

About two-thirds of people with hepatitis C are black, Anderson says. So the disease is a big concern for Richmond, a majority black city. “It just happens to be a city that has a lot more hidden hepatitis than, say, a city in northern Minnesota,” he says.

Unfortunately, Anderson says, there's no federal or state money available for free screenings in Richmond. The closest places to get free hepatitis screenings are the Newport News or Fairfax health departments.

So Anderson and the Hepatitis Foundation International, working with Councilwoman Cynthia Newbille's 7th District health initiative, are launching a grass-roots effort to turn Richmond doctors, nurses and ministers into advocates for hepatitis screening.

This month the foundation holds the first-ever Virginia summit to teach health professionals about viral hepatitis. On Oct. 16, the foundation's chief executive, Thelma King Thiel, aka the Liver Lady, will speak to city ministers at the East District Family Resource Center to encourage them to pass the word to their congregations.

The liver is the Rodney Dangerfield of organs. People don't understand that it's the body's internal power plant, Thiel says. And because it's a so-called noncomplaining organ, people may live with hepatitis C for decades unknowingly as the disease stealthily scars their liver and often leads to cirrhosis or liver cancer.

Anderson hopes the Richmond initiatives will encourage city residents with any hepatitis risk factors to ask their doctors for a test, even if it's been decades since they engaged in intravenous drug use, had unprotected sex or accidentally came into contact with someone's blood.

There's no cure for hepatitis C, but next year the federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve two highly effective treatments, Thiel says. 

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