Newshawk: Herb Pubdate: Sat, 08 Jan 2005 Source: New York City Newsday (NY) Author: Delthia Ricks

The prevalence of hepatitis C is growing citywide and could spawn an epidemic of staggering proportions unless steps are taken now, health experts said Friday.

Doctors, researchers, community activists and people with the infection testified in Manhattan before members of two state Assembly committees asking legislators to take action to prevent an unprecedented increase in the blood-borne disease within a decade. The infection can cause irrevocable liver damage. Experts say an epidemic could overwhelm public and private 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. Litwin and other doctors said they know an epidemic is in the making because hepatitis C is being diagnosed with increasing frequency, and is the No. 1 opportunistic infection causing death in people with AIDS throughout the city.

An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people in the city may be infected, experts said, and many may be unaware because of the disorder's long latency. Symptoms can take up to 20 years to manifest.

"There is potential for a crisis in the city and the state," said Dr. Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner of infectious disease control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Weisfuse attributed the growing problem to an increasing use of the street-drug crystal methamphetamine. Sharing needles and other drug paraphernalia is spreading the virus at an alarming rate, he said.

Experts Friday argued that, statewide, hundreds of thousands of other cases of hepatitis C are probably going undiagnosed, and that legislators should put strong outreach plans in place to provide drug counseling and treatment. The infection can be effectively controlled with medications when caught early.

Weisfuse said the rising number of cases in New York mirrors a national trend. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 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 transplantation, 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 can be transmitted through 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.

Community activists Friday called on state legislators to increase funding for vaccine programs to aid the uninsured. But while they sought greater access to vaccinations, they sounded their strongest pleas for help with hepatitis C.