Share a razor with your battle buddy? You might have Hepatitis C

Don't panic, it's curable but you need tested first!

Jonathan Kaupanger
May 25, 2018 - 12:30 pm

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Veterans are more likely to have hepatitis C than our civilian counterparts. And to make it even worse, more often than not you won’t even know that you have the illness until you’re on a liver transplant list.

“Untreated Hepatitis C, over time, will cause liver damage and it can absolutely lead to liver failure,” said Kristen Gallagher. Gallagher is a registered nurse and the Hepatitis C Coordinator at the Salisbury VA Medical Center in North Carolina. “If your liver fails, you have two options and that’s a transplant or funeral.”

Hepatitis C is a disease that’s spread when you come in contact with blood. The virus attacks the liver causing it to swell. It’s also the leading risk factor of liver cancer and the leading cause of liver transplant in the United States. According to Gallagher, there’s generally no symptoms when initially infected. 

“Seldom does it have symptoms at the time of infection,” said Gallagher.  “Nothing that would even send a soldier to sick call.  And because it’s a slow moving disease, people feel fine for years and years and don’t really understand the seriousness of it.”

If that scares you, it should. But on the very bright side of things, the VA can cure you of the illness and it starts with a quick blood test. “It’s a simple test to do,” said Gallagher before adding “It’s very difficult for me to find a reason where I would say to somebody no I don’t think you should get tested. I really believe all veterans and in fact most people on the face of the earth should get tested at least once.”

Veterans are more likely to get this because of the prevalence of blood exposure in a battle or medical setting. Vietnam-era veterans are at the most risk – they're five times more likely to have it than any other group of veterans. Other risk factors include: injecting drugs, blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, tattoos or body piercings are just a few of the reasons you should be tested. You can find the whole list of risk factors here

Hep C wasn’t discovered until 1989 so before then, things happened that we simply wouldn’t even think of today, like the air gun injectors used to inoculate recruits in boot camp.  If you remember standing in line only to have two corpsman shoot you in both arms with an air gun injector, you need to get tested. In fact, both the VA and Center for Disease Control recommend anyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested.

Gallagher notes that one of the reasons some people may be nervous about getting tested is due to the way Hep C was treated prior to 2013.  Treatment before that were weekly injections that had horrible side effects including suicidal and homicidal thoughts. “New treatments are completely different,” she says. “They work differently and they interact with the virus differently and have very few side effects.”

The new treatment is much easier. Typically, it's 12 weeks of taking one pill a day. And the new medications have a cure rate of mid to high 90 percent. At the Salisbury VA over 1100 veterans have been treated for Hep C and the cure rate there is 97.3 percent!

According to Gallagher there a couple things every veteran should remember when it comes to Hepatitis C. First, enroll in VA Healthcare. If you’re fall into any of the risk categories, apply, enroll and let the VA take care of this for you. Next, don’t assume that just because you don’t show any symptoms that you’re okay. 

“I can tell you from my experience here at Salisbury, 100 percent of veterans who we have tested and who were newly diagnosed, had no idea they had Hepatitis C,” said Gallagher.  “Absolutely no idea, they were shocked and surprised.”

According to Dr. Kushal Shah who’s one of VA’s clinical pharmacy specialist in hepatology at the Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Illinois, as of April 2018, there were about 32,600 known Veterans in VA care who were potentially eligible for treatment.

“As VA continues to actively treat Veterans with HCV infection, the number of Veterans unwilling or unable to be treated will continue to remain relatively constant, while the overall number of Veterans that will require treatment will continue to decrease,” said Shah.  “VA has had tremendous success treating and curing Veterans with hepatitis C (HCV), treating more than 106,000 Veterans with hepatitis C between January 2014 and April 2018, with cure rates exceeding 95 percent.”

“We can cure this,” adds Gallagher.  “We are all hands on deck to get everybody treated as quickly as we can.”  Former VA Secretary David Shulkin had a goal of eradicating Hep C from the VA by the end of 2018.  “Eradication of Hep C would be a wonderful thing,” said Gallagher.  “Not just for veterans but for public health concerns as a whole. It’s a challenging goal but it’s absolutely what we’re shooting for.”

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