By Alyssa Aguilera
New York can be a national leader in protecting the health of baby boomers if Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signs legislation that would require health care providers to screen for the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus.
The bipartisan bill, which is backed by a coalition of groups that include the AARP and NAACP, is modeled on new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend doctors offer a one-time test to everyone born between 1945 and 1965.
Although baby boomers have the highest rate of hepatitis C infection of any age group, it’s not something doctors screen for. Since people can live with hepatitis C for decades without any noticeable symptoms, most people living with the virus have no idea.
More than 200,000 New Yorkers are believed to have hepatitis C, a leading cause of liver disease that kills more people nationwide than HIV/AIDS. Many were infected through blood transfusions before regular screening of the blood supply was introduced in 1992; others through any history of injection drug use, even just one time.
The good news is that most people with hepatitis C can be cured, and even more effective medicines will be on the market in the next couple of years. But people can’t access care and treatment unless they first get diagnosed, and too many people now find out they have hepatitis C after there’s been significant damage to their liver and overall health.
Last year, Erie County Commissioner of Health Dr. Gale Burstein called the spread of viral hepatitis a “silent epidemic” and cited the need for expanded testing to connect those infected with potentially life-saving care. Based on VOCAL’s analysis of state health department data, we estimate that nearly two-thirds of Erie County residents living with hepatitis C don’t know their status. The picture may be even worse in other areas of Western New York.
So who would oppose empowering people with hepatitis C to learn their status and take steps to get treatment, prevent transmission and save millions of dollars in avoidable health care costs?
Some hospitals and doctors initially objected to the bill because the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force hadn’t issued a strong recommendation in favor of hepatitis C screening for baby boomers. That’s no longer the case. Just days before the State Senate passed New York’s screening bill, the task force upgraded its recommendation and joined the CDC in calling on health care providers to test patients for hepatitis C.
There are a lot of chronic health conditions affecting New Yorkers that we still struggle to find reliable tests and effective medication for. Hepatitis C isn’t one of them.
Alyssa Aguilera is political director for VOCAL New York, a grass-roots organization dedicated to creating healthy and just communities.