DOBSON — Officials with the county health department are undertaking an education initiative after learning that Surry County had the highest rate of acute hepatitis C in the state last year.
According to Health and Nutrition Center Director Samantha Ange, the county reported nine confirmed cases in 2013, and has already confirmed six cases this year.
“We were notified that we have the most reported cases of hepatitis C in the state on March 10,” Ange said.
Since that time, the department has began an initiative to educate the public, particularly those in high-risk groups by participating in health fairs and creating educational pamphlets.
Hepatitis C is a contagious disease that results from a blood-borne virus that infects the cells of the liver and it can be fatal, with between 8,000 and 10,000 deaths annually.
According to communicable disease nurses Breanne Watson and Alex Pruitt, there are two phases of hepatitis C infection.
“Acute hepatitis C is a short-term illness that occurs within the first six months of the exposure to the virus,” said Watson.
In many cases, the acute infection can be treated, but if is not treated it can become chronic, meaning it remains in the patient’s system, often causing liver damage, cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer, said Pruitt.
The condition is spread through the blood, and groups that are particularly vulnerable to contracting the illness include:
• Current or past users of intravenous drugs.
• Persons diagnosed with HIV infection.
• Those diagnosed with liver disease.
• Person who received blood or organs prior to 1992, when the government mandated blood testing.
• People born between 1945 and 1965.
Other risk factors associated with the condition include receiving a tattoo or piercing from an unlicensed artist, accidental needle sticks, infants born to infected mothers or sharing personal hygiene products.
“In Surry County, we’re seeing that it’s primarily due to the use of needles,” said Pruitt.
According to Watson, the majority of the cases being seen in the local health department are Caucasian males.
“This is a problem worldwide, not just in Surry County,” she said.
In order to prevent the spread of the condition, department officials recommend the public not share needles or other drug paraphernalia, get plenty of rest, eat a nutritious diet, maintain a healthy weight and stay in touch with the doctor.
According to Wendy Smith, family nurse practitioner for the department, the condition can be treated.
“It is important for those in the risk groups to be tested in order to receive treatment before any liver damage has the chance to occur,” she said.
Smith noted, however, that the treatment can cost more than $100,000.
“The treatment costs for this condition are unreal,” she said.
For more information, contact the Surry County Health and Nutrition Center at 336-401-8400.
Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter @strangereporter.