PORTLAND – Health officials estimate that as many as 23,000 Maine residents are infected with hepatitis C, a virus that was little known 15 years ago but is now the country’s most common blood-borne infection.
Even though hepatitis C is also America’s top reason for liver transplants, resources to fight the slow-moving virus are scarce.
Last year, Maine used $32,000 in federal block grants and $15,000 in private funding to provide free hepatitis C testing at 22 sites around the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided about $110,000 to fund the state’s viral hepatitis coordinator.
In contrast, the state last year budgeted about $1.9 million in federal and state funds for HIV prevention activities and about $350,000 for STD control and prevention.
Although Maine’s Bureau of Health and local health departments are planning hepatitis C education and testing, some patients are taking matters into their own hands, hoping to keep others from infection or misinformation about the virus.
Norm Burnell, an information technology manager from Lewiston, thinks he was exposed to hepatitis C as a medic in the Vietnam War. He is advocating for patients on his Web site, www.hepatitiscnme.org.
“It’s time for someone to come out and for people to understand that over 4 million Americans are infected with this virus and it’s a big epidemic,” said Burnell, 54.
Hepatitis C can cause chronic illness and fatigue in up to 85 percent of infected people. One-fifth of people with hepatitis C also will develop liver cirrhosis, which can cause serious health complications and lead to liver cancer, or even death.
The virus is transmitted mostly by sharing intravenous needles. It also can be passed on by unprotected sex and unsanitary tattooing. Until better blood tests were developed in the early 1990s, many people contracted hepatitis C through contaminated transfusions.
Joelle Leeks, a sales representative from Cape Elizabeth, was diagnosed last May.
“I was pretty much shocked – I hadn’t done anything to put myself at risk,” said Leeks, 36, who eventually pinpointed a blood transfusion after a 1987 car accident.
Leeks and members of her support group are organizing a grass-roots education campaign about the virus and hope to see a hot line for doctors with questions for hepatitis C specialists.