Members from Hepatitis C Allies of Philadelphia (HepCAP), an organization dedicated to raising awareness about Hepatitis C, and the city Department of Health were on hand for a HepCAP Town Hall Monday night at the South Philadelphia Library. The event served as a gathering of local Hep C allies to exchange information and resources, identify neighborhood-specific strengths and opportunities, and empower and galvanize South Philadelphia communities to become leaders in the movement to eliminate hepatitis C in Philadelphia.
The Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is the most common bloodborne infection in the U.S., and 45,000 Philadelphia residents are believed to have hepatitis C. Over 50 percent of people living with a HCV are not even aware that they are infected, and many do not know there is a cure for HCV.
According to Danica Kuncio, Viral Hepatitis program manager at the Department of Health, there are estimated to be at least 4.1 million people in the United States have HepC, a figure has gone up in recent years due to the opioid crisis. However, Kuncio said it’s likely the 4.1 million number is lower than the actual figure because people have to be tested for the disease in order to know if they actually have it. Unfortunately, Kuncio said, many people simply don’t get tested. The disease, however, is curable.
“Everybody can be cured of Hep C,” said Stacey Trooskin, community co-chair of HepCAP. “The problem is it’s a silent infection. People who are exposed through injection drug use or sharing used equipment or if they had a blood transfusion before 1992 or if they were born to an infected mom.”
If hepatitis C goes unchecked for decades, it can cause serious damage to the liver. The infection leads to inflammation, which leads to scarring.
“Eventually, you’ll get scarring,” Trooskin said. “A little bit of scarring is called fibrosis, and a lot of scarring is called cirrhosis.”
Cirrhosis, Trooskin said, puts you at risk for liver cancer and ultimately liver failure.
Many people – 15 percent to 25 percent of people, to be exact, according to Trooskin – have the antibodies necessary to clear Hep C all on their own.
According to Kuncio, there are nine states in the United States that account for more than half of the Hep C positive population, and Pennsylvania is one of them. Philadelphia, and even more specifically South Philly, in particular is a hotbed for those who are Hep C positive. Kuncio said that 1 in 39 Philadelphians has Hep C. The disease is even more common in South Philadelphia, where 1 in 29 people suffer from Hep C. In the 19145 ZIP code, the number is 1 in 25.
“Everybody’s focused on Kensington, but South Philly – we’re not living under the bridge, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a problem,” said Priya Mammen, a public health specialist and community advocate. “It’s not so obvious how many of our neighbors are struggling with opioid use disorder or struggling with substance abuse disorder in general. They’re not housed on the streets and things like that. They are very much at risk for overdose, but they’re also at risk for HIV and they’re also at risk for hepatitis C.”
Many speakers at the town hall spoke of harm reduction as a way to minimize the spread of HCV.
Harm reduction is a “frame of thought that what you feel like is the priority for someone may not be their priority,” said Jack Hildick-Smith, governmental co-chair at HepCAP. “People have their own solutions in life, and they can go about approaching them however they want. And that is, in the long term, better for their health.”
An example of harm reduction could be encouraging people suffering from addiction to use drugs more safely rather than encouraging them to quit altogether.
“We’re not enabling, but if somebody’s going to use, I’d rather them do it safely,” said harm reduction activist Destinie Campanella. “Are you going to go to a high school and preach don’t have sex? Abstinence? No, that’s not going to work. So what do you tell them? Use condoms, use birth control, there’s a safer way.”
It’s the same way for those who suffer from substance abuse, Campanella explained. Since they’re going to use no matter what, they should at least be encouraged to use clean syringes, carry naloxone and to not use alone.