March 12, 2012
Around 216,300 Floridians have chronic hepatitis C, an illness that has eclipsed HIV as a killer of U.S. adults annually. Baby boomers are most at risk for the infection through past injecting drug use or tainted blood transfusions. Prior to 1992, donated blood was not tested for the virus.
With 28,074 and 25,156 cases, respectively, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have more chronic hepatitis C cases than other parts of the state. This distinction may have more to do with population numbers than incidence rates, but the numbers are alarming enough that officials there are making a concerted effort to stress testing and treatment.
In Miami-Dade, "every health fair we go to, every community event we attend, we urge people to get tested for both [STDs] and a hepatitis panel in their blood work," said Dr. Vince Conte, deputy director of the county's department of epidemiology, disease control, and immunization services. In Broward, the county health department is sponsoring a viral hepatitis prevention conference in late April at the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
Hepatitis C tends to be asymptomatic in the early stages, and as many of one-half of people with the virus are unaware they are infected. "People are walking around not knowing they have it while it's quietly doing damage. When they discover they're infected, they may have already developed serious problems," said Dr. Eugene Schiff, director of the Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
The push for testing is fueled by recent treatment advances that have boosted the cure rate for hepatitis C to around 70 percent, if patients are treated in time. Schiff predicts more outcome improvements within the next two years.