In just a few days, on July 28, it will be World Hepatitis Day. Last week I talked about why it’s so important to shine the light on World Hepatitis Day. Today it feels right to spend some time sharing an interview with an amazing medical professional who not only works with hepatitis C patients in his professional life, but recently spent his downtime literally going coast-to-coast shining a light on hepatitis C awareness.
Chris Biesinger, a certified physician assistant at the Central Utah Clinic in Provo, Utah, was part of an eight-man team participating in the Race Across America (RAAM), which is the world’s top endurance bicycling event. The starting whistle blew on June 18, 2011 in California and Chris’s team (calling themselves the “Liverators”) rode non-stop for six days, 11 hours, and 21 minutes, crossing the continent to Maryland. Over the course of the race, Chris’s team climbed more than 110,000 vertical feet and traveled 30 percent farther than the Tour de France.
Dr. Vogt: What were the goals of your team in participating in RAAM?
Biesinger: All of us on the “Liverators” work in some way with hepatitis C (including two liver transplant surgeons), so our team’s goal was simple: to raise awareness about liver disease and organ donation.
Dr. Vogt: What are your hopes for World Hepatitis Day?
Biesinger: What I really hope is that the average person in this country will realize that hepatitis C is a threat, but it’s a threat that they can do something about. A huge number of people are walking around with no idea that they have this infection; I want people to learn about the disease and get screened for it. It can be as easy as asking your doctor to add the test onto your lab panel at your next routine check-up.
Dr. Vogt: What do you think the average American would be most surprised to learn about hepatitis C?
Biesinger: Most people are shocked to learn that the hepatitis C virus can lay dormant for years; it’s not uncommon for people to be infected for 20 years before they find out that they have this disease. Just because you feel well doesn’t mean that you don’t have hepatitis C.
So many newly-diagnosed patients come into my office in complete disbelief, saying “I don’t do needle drugs, how could I have possibly gotten this disease?” As our conversation continues, the patient may remember a relatively innocent and isolated experience from 20 years ago, such as having a bit too much to drink at a party in college and snorting cocaine that was offered. This dumb mistake as a kid, unfortunately, can have repercussions two decades later since nasal cocaine can be infected with the hepatitis C virus.
Dr. Vogt: Who should get screened for hepatitis C?
Biesinger: Anyone who has had any potential exposure to the hepatitis C virus should be screened for this infection. This means anyone with a needle poke from a potentially unsterile needle, anyone with a questionable sexual encounter, anyone who has done nasal drugs (even if it was only one time many years ago), or anyone who has lived with someone who has hepatitis C.
The screening test for hepatitis C is a simple, inexpensive blood draw. You can even keep it confidential by donating blood (since your blood will be screened and you’ll be informed if it tests positive for hepatitis C).
Dr. Vogt: What do you say to people who think: “If I don’t have any symptoms of hepatitis C infection, why bother getting screened?”
Biesinger: Hepatitis C is best treated before symptoms develop. As I mentioned, many of my patients were infected 20 years in the past and all that time they may have had no symptoms of this disease whatsoever. If you wait until you get symptoms, though, that means that your liver is at the point of significant injury. I want to intervene before the liver is injured, when the treatment outlook is best.
Dr. Vogt: Do you feel hopeful about today’s treatment options for hepatitis C?
Biesinger: I have never felt more hopeful! When I started working with hepatitis C patients more than a decade ago, the standard treatment for hepatitis C infection was effective in only 15 percent of cases. A few years ago, advances in the standard treatment had brought our success rate up to 50 percent, but obviously that still left half of people without the outcome we would hope for. Today, due to recent advances, hepatitis C treatment is effective 70 percent of the time!