July 28, 2016 by Jessica Stephenson
By Kimberly Chen, BSPharm, Director of Pharmacy at North Country HealthCare
An estimated 80,000 Arizonans live with hepatitis C, one of Arizona’s most commonly reported infectious diseases, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Unfortunately, half of people with hepatitis C in the United States are unaware they are infected, causing the disease to spread even more rapidly. The Hepatitis C Care Team at North Country HealthCare is actively working to raise awareness of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and provide screenings and treatment to prevent the spread of this potentially deadly disease in northern Arizona.
For years North Country HealthCare’s Hepatitis C Care team has been caring for those living with HCV by helping patients gain access to treatment, and by improving patients’ quality of life and wellbeing. North Country’s providers educate patients, helping them to manage their health and prevent spreading the virus. For those who can be treated, the Hepatitis C Care Team works to get approval from their insurance to pay for treatment. For those who are uninsured, the team assists with applying for assistance programs to help cover the cost of treatment. Team members work closely with patients undergoing treatment to ensure they are taking medications, completing necessary blood tests and following up with specialists, as appropriate.
The Hepatitis C Care Team is made up of healthcare providers, clinical pharmacists, behaviorists, health coaches, a program coordinator, and other support personnel. The Hepatitis C Care Team works with specialists from Banner Medical Center using telemedicine in a collaboration called Project ECHO. Through this partnership, North Country HealthCare providers work with leading HCV specialists to treat and cure HCV in the primary care setting.
To date, 131 patients have completed HCV treatment at North Country HealthCare, and 30 more are currently in treatment.
Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver which is caused by the hepatitis C virus; it is the most common infection spread by blood in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There is currently no vaccine for HCV. The best way to prevent it is to avoid behaviors that can spread the disease.
HCV is transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, which can happen via injection drug use, tattooing or body piercing, sharing personal hygiene items such as nail clippers or a razor, or blood transfusions, especially prior to 1992. HCV can also be transmitted during intercourse or from a mother to her child during childbirth, although both cases are rare.
About 15 out of 100 people who are exposed to HCV can fight off the virus with their own immune system. For these people HCV is a short-term illness, but for 75-80% of those infected with HCV, it becomes a long-term, chronic condition. Left untreated, chronic hepatitis C continues to damage the liver and can result in cirrhosis, eventual liver failure and even death.
Those outcomes can often be prevented with treatment. In fact, 99% of those who receive treatment for chronic HCV are cured. Treatments for HCV have seen huge improvements over the past five years, and new drugs are being developed at a rapid rate.
Collaborative programs, like North Country HealthCare’s, are making great efforts to increase patients’ access to curative programs, not only through providing treatment, but supporting patients to resolve barriers to their care. For more information or to schedule a free HCV screening, contact North Country HealthCare here.
Kimberly Chen, BSPharm is the Director of Pharmacy for North Country HealthCare. She has been practicing pharmacy over 24 years and has been in Flagstaff since 2001. Kimberly received her degree from the University of Cincinnati, James Winkle College of Pharmacy. Kimberly is passionate about patient care and improving patients’ access to services, especially clinical pharmacy services.
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