by Michael Harney –
It’s tax season—time for at least some of us to get well-deserved refunds!
But all of us in Buncombe County can get tests for Hepatitis C, syphilis, and HIV, free of charge at the Health Department or the Western North Carolina AIDS Project (WNCAP), guaranteed to pay individual and public health dividends whether the results are positive or negative—all thanks to a pot of tax dollars allocated by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).*
Need more convincing? The Optimal Management of HIV Disease & Hepatitis Clinical Conference (OPMAN XXV), held in Orlando March 17-19, included sessions about the national effort to identify, test, and treat-to-cure the estimated 3.5 million or more people in this country living with the virus known as hepatitis C (HCV)—75% of whom are thought to have been born between 1945-1965, many of them infected before mandatory blood screening for HCV began in 1992. Within the other 25% are additional people who have ever shared needles or related injecting equipment, and a smaller group who acquired the virus sexually.
The recommendation for testing also goes for those who may have contracted syphilis—a sexually transmitted infection (STI) caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum—whether we have a recent infection, or have been living with it, sometimes without symptoms, for years.
There is great concern about the upsurge in syphilis cases across the U.S. and in North Carolina, especially among men who have ever had sex with another man—but don’t count yourself out if that does not describe you. Syphilis masks itself in dermatological (skin) manifestations which may not stand out to a physician doing a basic health-care screening.
Has your doctor ever offered to test you for syphilis? Perhaps an unusual rash has appeared on your body; perhaps a small painless sore in your privates? Are you having visual changes or eye irritation causing you to visit an eye doctor or specialist? Read all about the many symptoms of syphilis by visiting www.cdc.gov, then clicking on “S” under the index at the top of the page. Scroll down to “Syphilis” where you’ll find the Fact Sheet to learn more.
Syphilis is no joke, but it can be treated and cured at all stages, even if one has had it for years. Self-diagnosis is not enough; testing is the only way to know for sure. And what would keep you from just getting tested anyway? If your doctor doesn’t seem interested, a simple call to the Buncombe County DHHS (828-250-5109) is the easiest way to set an appointment to get tested, and may be a good return on your tax dollars!
As for HCV, there are new, fairly simple treatments to cure it in 8-12 weeks for most people, with few side effects. This is unlike the old treatments for hepatitis C that someone you may know tried taking in the past, often with great misery and little to no success. There is some initial blood work to identify the genotype of hepatitis C in the body, which helps the provider know which medication to prescribe. Not all doctors may feel confident in treating patients with these medications, but it is not as hard as they may fear.
The websites www.hcvguidelines.org and www.hep-druginteractions.org are quite helpful and comprehensive. Additionally, the manufacturers of these successful therapies have patient assistance programs to help pay for what insurance companies may not agree to cover.
There is also great information about HCV at the www.cdc.gov website, but this time click on the “V” for “Viral Hepatitis,” down the page a good way, where you’ll find the link to a list of risk factors that may increase your interest in being tested. Remember, it’s free and can be done at the same time you get tested for syphilis.
So, what’s stopping you?
Taxes may be due by April 15th, but you are due the best health care possible all year long. Get your return today!
* Not all NC counties have free hepatitis C testing. WNCAP (828-252-7489) does HIV/HCV and syphilis tests for free too, but they are only for screening purposes, and not confirmatory and diagnostic, as would be the blood tests provided at the health department.
Michael Harney is a prevention educator with WNCAP and helps operate NEPA@WNCAP, one of the local needle exchange programs in the region.