ACR Health is using the occasion of its upcoming 26th annual AIDS Walk/Run to call attention to another growing public health threat: The Hepatitis C virus. Officials say while the rate of new HIV and AIDS cases continue to decline, Hepatitis C cases have soared in recent years. ACR Health Executive Director Wil Murtaugh says this area is especially vulnerable.
"In the Central New York region, the rate of Hepatitis C infection is up 55 percent in the last six years. that is higher than any other upstate region. It is clearly time for decisive action.”
ACR Health says the opioid epidemic is exacerbating the rate of hepatitis C infection. Community Prevention Coordinator K. Daniel Reed says that while there are other risk factors, the highest risk factor for Hepatitis C is injection drug use.
“Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through blood to blood contact, as in sharing syringes through injection drugs. There are some instances, though rare, where it can be spread through sexual contact. Millions of Americans are living with viral Hepatitis, and most do not know that they're infected."
That's because there are usually no symptoms, sometimes for decades. Julia LaVere, Director of the Syringe Exchange Program at ACR Health.
"There is a cure, so our biggest thing is get yourself tested, know your status, so you're not giving it to anyone else and you can live healthy. Once it starts progressing and your liver is severely impaired, then it’s more of a problem.”
The availability of clean syringes has been instrumental in combatting the AIDS epidemic, with the rate of HIV infection in injection drug users falling from 50 percent to less than two percent since the program’s introduction in 1993. LaVere says while the exchange is an effective tool in combatting Hepatitis C, even more efforts must be taken to combat this more robust virus.
“Recently I had a gentleman tell me he tested for Hepatitis C, and was adamant he's never shared a needle. The message people don't understand is when you share the cooker [used for mixing and heating drugs] or any other injection supplies, you are at risk for Hepatitis C.”
Unlike Hepatitis C, no cure has been found yet for HIV and AIDS.
Mayor Ben Walsh joined ACR Health Tuesday to declare Paint the Town Red Day, in solidarity with the annual campaign to spread community awareness of the ongoing AIDS epidemic. The local non-profit will be out across Central New York this week educating the public on AIDS awareness and prevention, culminating in their 26th annual AIDS Walk and Run this Sunday at Beaver Lake.