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About 1 in 4 homeless on Skid Row have hepatitis C, study says

By Hayley Fox
Published: Tuesday, June 12, 2012, at 09:01AM
Eric Richardson

One in four homeless people surveyed on Skid Row has Hepatitis C, a new study says.

Nearly one in four homeless adults tested in Downtown's Skid Row have the liver-damaging, hepatitis C virus (HCV), according to a new study from UCLA -- and nearly half of them didn't know they were infected.

The disease now kills more people in the U.S. than AIDS, the report says, and there are often no symptoms associated with it so many are unaware they're infected. The disease is transferred through blood-to-blood contact and is typically considered the most damaging of the hepatitis viruses.

Most of the 534 homeless people surveyed in DTLA between June 2003 and February 2005 were African American men. Each person was tested for hepatitis B and C, as well as for HIV. Researchers discovered that hepatitis C was more common in those who had been in prison or injected drugs. The disease was also more common in those who had less education, were at least 40 years old or were born in the U.S.

Only a few of the people who were infected had ever received treatment for the virus, said Dr. Lillian Gelberg, a professor of family medicine at UCLA, who helped lead the study.

"The costs of their untreated hepatitis C may start escalating soon, as many are approaching 20 years of infection, which is the point at which we see escalating risk for liver cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease, requiring expensive health services utilization and liver transplantation," Gelberg said in a statement.

Cirrhosis is the scaring of liver tissue that builds up over decades and makes it difficult for the organ to function. A small percentage of those infected with hepatitis C may also develop liver cancer.

Researchers say education, counseling and testing services should be made available for the homeless, and suggest developing HCV treatment programs based on successful HIV/AIDS program models.

KPCC reports that there are new treatments for the virus however that could save almost 120,000 lives and cure about 75 percent of all infections.

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