The Oakland City Council, with leadership by Councilwoman Lynette McElhaney, has declared March 8-15 Hepatitis C Awareness Week, calling on residents to learn about risk factors for this preventable infection and to participate in citywide education events.
And it's about time. There has been so much progress in treating hepatitis C that more than 90 percent of those who have it can be cured with a 12-week treatment regimen. Yes, cured.
It doesn't stop there. Hepatitis C treatments are evolving rapidly and will continue to get easier and even more effective.
But there is a hitch: You have to know you have it to get treated.
Hepatitis C is called the silent killer because you can develop advanced liver disease from this virus without having much in the way of symptoms. And although it usually doesn't cause serious liver damage, it can.
At our little clinic in Oakland, which has been addressing hepatitis C for about 15 years, we still see people on a regular basis who have developed serious cirrhosis or liver cancer from hepatitis C even though treatment has been available. It is time for this to stop.
Hepatitis C is the most common bloodborne virus in the United States, about four to five times more common than HIV.
It disproportionately affects our communities of color, and almost 10 percent of African-American men between the ages of 45 and 55 have been exposed. It is passed on by blood, even in minuscule quantities.
Yes, you can get it from sharing drug needles and other paraphernalia, but there are many other risk factors, including a blood transfusion before 1992 or sex with an infected partner.
Even the small amounts of blood on razors, toothbrushes, nail clippers, cocaine straws, and crack pipes can sometimes lead to infection.
It seems to me that almost everyone, at some point, has probably done something that might put them at risk.
This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has recommended that all baby boomers born between the years of 1945-1965 get tested at least once, regardless of whether they consider themselves at risk.
For the rest, any exposure to someone else's blood should trigger a screening test. Nowadays, a hep C test can be done from a drop of blood obtained from a finger prick, and it only takes 20 minutes to get the results.
Our clinic will be offering free, anonymous walk-in hepatitis C education and testing March 10-14, as part of our Hepatitis C Awareness Week events, and there are many other places across the city that will do the same. If you are at risk, you should get tested. It might just save your life.
Physician Diana L. Sylvestre is executive director of the OASIS Clinic, at 520 27th St., Oakland. Free hepatitis C testing is held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 10-14.