By Anna Jaffray
Hepatitis C now kills more Americans than Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). There were 15,000 Hepatitis C deaths in 2007 and 12,500 deaths from HIV. In the peak of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s there were 50,000 deaths. Hepatitis C deaths are on the rise. Nearly 3.2 million Americans are believed to have Hepatitis C, primarily of the baby-boomer age. Yet 75% are unaware of their infection, according to Ryan Clary, Director of Public Policy of Project Inform, an organization which fights against the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C.
This population likely consists of those who experimented with intravenous drugs for an extended period in their youth but can also be transferred via any blood to blood contact. If left untreated, Hepatitis C can cause liver damage, liver cancer or cirrhosis.
It is unknown whether or not Hepatitis C can be transmitted sexually, however it is most likely transmitted through sharing needles, blood transfusions before 1992, or any situation where infected blood comes into contact with clean blood.
So, what does this mean for HIV funding? Some worry that the reduction in HIV deaths will lead to less funding for a cure.
Courtney Mulhern-Pearson, Legislative and Policy Associate of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said that current levels of funding have reduced the death rate. “We can see from the research that our work in prevention is working but we still have a lot more to do, [but]rates are going down and prevention programs are working.”
Mulhern-Pearson said that SFAF’s strategic plan – the primary goals of eliminating HIV in SF, reducing infections, increasing awareness and care connections – take up most of their funding, however it is also related to government contracts and where the funding is designated, not necessarily infection rates.
Co-infection is also a concern for the AIDS Foundation and Project Inform, where approximately 60,000 individuals are HIV positive and Hepatitis B positive, while nearly 300,000 are co-infected with Hepatitis C and HIV. All the more reason to keep this an “and” conversation, according to Mulhern-Pearson.
Currently the SF AIDS Foundation participates in multiple HIV prevention and treatment programs in addition to their syringe access programs and public policy work, to decrease the rates of both diseases.
“The news that annual HCV deaths have surpassed HIV deaths is sobering but a wakeup call about the need for funding and leadership,” says Clary. “The LGBT community should not take recent news to mean that the HIV epidemic is over and that we merely need to shift attention to Hepatitis C. Both diseases have a serious impact on our community and we should commit to fighting both, educating one another, and demanding an adequate response from government and other decision-makers” says Clary.