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Veterans can be free of hepatitis C with help from VA Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, 8:25 a.m.

It will make you look. But looking will not be enough.

I'm free of hepatitis C. You can be, too.

Those two sentences, appearing on area billboards and buses and in newspapers as 2017 comes to a close, are intended to get the attention of veterans serviced by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

They are a call to action to those for whom duty called.

"We believe there are many more local veterans who have hepatitis C - especially baby boomers," says Tami Coppler, a member of VA Pittsburgh's Hepatitis C Treatment Team.

"We hope to reach them, their families and caregivers through this campaign."

One in 30 baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C , most unknowingly, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No group of veterans is more at risk for hepatitis C than the baby boomers.

Coppler hopes these veterans will get tested because only a screening can diagnose or rule out the existence of the hepatitis C virus (HCV). And already more than 750 veterans enrolled with VA Pittsburgh have been cured of hepatitis C.

The Food and Drug Administration's approval of modern therapies has significantly improved the fight against hepatitis C. In 2015, VA Pittsburgh began implementing treatment featuring all-oral therapies that were proven to eliminate hepatitis C in as few as 12 weeks.

A veteran who tests positive for HCV in November could be clear not long after New Year's Day.

Taking advantage of these newer medications must be a priority for veterans. Left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to liver failure, transplant surgery or an early death. Coppler stresses that veterans who previously had failed treatment for hepatitis C with medications such as interferon and ribavirin could also experience improvement from the newer therapies.

"We urge all veterans... to come in as soon as possible for evaluation," says Coppler.

A disease of the liver, hepatitis C is most commonly spread through blood-to-blood contact. Those most at risk are current or previous users of intravenous drugs, patients who underwent blood transfusions before 1992 , persons with a history of hemodialysis or the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

However, any veteran born into the baby boomer generation should be screened. Of 4 million Americans living with chronic hepatitis C, the CDC reports that 75 percent were born from 1945-1965. VA Pittsburgh offers veterans a simple blood test to screen for the virus.

Without a screening, a veteran is highly unlikely to recognize the presence of hepatitis C because symptoms usually don't appear until the late stages. And even those symptoms - including fatigue, nausea, vomiting and jaundice - are prone to resemble ailments that veterans might not recognize as hepatitis C.

Considering the circumstances and statistics, VA Pittsburgh's campaign to raise awareness of and provide treatment for hepatitis C is an invaluable gift for the enrolled veterans it serves in 13 area counties. A special purpose grant from the veterans Health Administration made the initiative possible.

And really, a little initiative is all it will take for veterans to do themselves the favor of taking a life-changing test.

After all, many veterans are now free of hepatitis C.

If you're a veteran, you can be, too.

Veterans enrolled in VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System can schedule an appointment for hepatitis C screens by calling (412) 360-1232. A list of locations is available on VA's website.

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