City and state public health officials are waging a war against hepatitis C, and a new initiative and law are now in play and aimed at keeping baby boomers healthy. NY1's Erin Billups filed the following report.
Hepatitis C-related deaths are on the rise. Last year, around 750 city residents died of the disease.
"So we know that if we don't do something now, that maybe 10,000, 20,000 people might die from this disease over the next 10 to 15 years," said Deputy City Health Commissioner Dr. Jay Varma.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 75 percent of those dying from hepatitis C are baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965. That's why Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill requiring that all health providers test boomers for the disease.
"Most people are unaware of this infection because it barely causes symptoms," says Dr. Ype Dejong of New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell/Rockefeller University.
Hepatitis C is a blood infection that attacks the liver and can eventually cause cancer. Dejong says that a majority of his patients contracted the virus 20 to 40 years ago, through intravenous drug use or unscreened blood transfusions.
"We know that we are missing a large group of the population who are infected and don't carry these risk factors, so the estimate is that in New York, we think about 150,000 people are probably infected with hepatitis C," Dejong says.
Only about half are aware they're infected. So to get the word out, the City Health Department launched a new initiative.
"We're working with lots of different physician groups on trying to education physicians and build prompts into their medical record system," Varma said.
The initiative comes right as a cure for Hepatitis C is in sight. Medication traditionally used has a bad rap. It works for less than half who are treated, and the side effects are severe and debilitating.
"We expect to get treatments that are even better and that are just pills," Dejong says. "So no longer this interferum injection, which most people are afraid to take."
The new drugs will be available within the next two years. Hurdles that remain are whether patients should wait for the drug, not having enough doctors with expertise in Hepatitis C, and that some boomers may not see the need to treat a disease with little to no symptoms.
"We also face a challenge there trying to make people understand that this is an infection that can be very serious, and so it's better to treat it before you have the symptoms," Varma says.
The state testing law goes into effect January 1.