Columbia, Boone County offer free Hepatitis C testing

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COLUMBIA - Ahead of World Hepatitis Day, Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services is offering free Hepatitis C testing. 

The event will be held from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the agency's clinic at 1005 W. Worley St. 

One of the organizers, Erika Holliday, will be administering the tests. She said the event is a unique opportunity.

"Usually there is some screening that has to take place for someone to get a Hep C test, but since it is World Hepatitis Day on Saturday, we want to have it open for everyone," she said. 

According to the World Hepatitis Day Campaign, more than 300 million people live with viral hepatitis and do not know. 

Christine Sewell, with Hep C Alliance, said the virus can stay in someone's system for decades without causing any symptoms.

"That's the scariest part about this disease, because you may not exhibit any symptoms at all for quite a long time," she said. 

The people who do have symptoms experience yellowing of the eyes and skin, nausea, fatigue and loss of appetite. 

Hepatitis C is the number one cause of liver cancer, and, since 2007, it has killed more people annually than HIV.

“It’s certainly a very dangerous infection. It’s currently killing more people in the United States than any other infectious disease, so we are definitely seeing it take a toll," Holliday said.

Hep C Alliance works with about half of the counties in Missouri and some counties in southeast Kansas. It focuses on people the most at risk for getting Hepatitis C, works to educate those people about the virus and offers free testing.

In 2016 the alliance saw 500 positive cases. That number grew to 600 positives in 2017, and so far in 2018 there have been 160.

"We do have a Hep C problem, not only in this country, but world wide, and we need to talk about it more," Sewell said.

Hepatitis is spread by blood to blood contact, either through unscreened blood used for transfusions, by sharing needles or from using unsterile tattoo equipment. Mothers can also pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy, labor or nursing. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, people born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to have Hepatitis C. The CDC highly recommends anyone born in these years to get tested. 

"I say to Baby Boomers, you know, when you were in elementary school and you had shots, they used glass syringes and those needles were used repetitively," Sewell said. 

In the Vietnam era, those in the military stood in a line and "jet guns" gave them vaccines, all with the same needle. 

Holliday said medical practices were not as standardized back then.

"People were not as careful, not out of laziness, just because they weren't taught on how to be sanitary," she said. 

The test is a finger prick test and it takes about 20 minutes to get results.