Experts Warn Against Growth Of Hepatitis C On LI Pubdate: Fri, 07 Jan 2005 Source: Newsday (NY)

The growing prevalence of hepatitis C on Long Island could pose a greater threat than the emergence of HIV two decades ago, a health expert said Friday.

Doctors, researchers, community activists and people with the blood-borne infection testified in Manhattan before members of two state Assembly committees asking legislators to take action. The disease can cause irrevocable liver damage. Experts predict an epidemic could overwhelm health systems and overload waiting lists for transplantable livers.

"This is just the start of a tidal wave that is going to hit in 2015 to 2020," said Dr. Alain Litwin, an infectious disease expert from Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx.

Many hepatitis C infections resulted from transfusions in the 1970s, before the virus was screened in the blood supply.

But health experts Friday spoke of a more recent wave of infections driven by a craze over the street drug crystal methamphetamine. Shared needles and other drug paraphernalia has touched off a spate of new infections in the state.

Jayne Green of the Nassau County Department of Drug and Alcohol Addiction, said while hepatitis C infections on Long Island come nowhere near the proportion in the city, the virus is becoming increasingly problematic here.

"Hepatitis C has a potential to be a greater threat than HIV in the 1980s and 1990s," on Long Island, she told legislators. Unlike other forms, hepatitis C takes up to 20 years to manifest. When detected early, it can be effectively controlled.

"There has been a problem with non-compliance," Green said. "All clients testing positive are referred to Nassau University Medical Center. But many don't go because they are unable to pay," she said.

While there are no firm hepatitis C prevalence figures on Long Island, Green said her agency is seeing more cases and of the 326 people counseled recently about the virus at her agency, 56 percent tested positive. An additional trend, she said, is the growing percentage co-infected with HIV.

Crystal methamphetamine has attracted a growing number of users in urban and suburban areas. Its link to hepatitis C is undeniable, experts say.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that within a decade there will be a 279 percent increase in the incidence of liver damage nationwide due to hepatitis C, a 528 percent increase in the need for transplants and a 223 percent increase in the liver-related death rate.

Hepatitis C is one in a family of infectious viruses that attack the liver. Hepatitis A and B, whose prevalence also is rising in New York, are preventable through vaccines.

All three viruses can be transmitted through the blood -- by sharing needles for example. Hepatitis C and B also can be transmitted sexually. Hepatitis A is noteworthy as a contaminant of food and water.