Sixteen patients at Beckley Health Right will participate in a new Hepatitis C treatment program beginning this week.

An orientation Tuesday will acquaint them with an overview of the program and stress the importance of keeping scheduled appointments and having regular lab work done.

“We need to monitor these patients carefully through blood work and regular, consistent follow-up as they progress through the program,” said Cheryl Winter, a certified family nurse practitioner at Beckley Health Right.

Participants have already been identified by the clinic through testing. For 12 weeks, they will undergo a combined therapy of injections and oral medications.

If the treatments are successful, they will improve the quality of life for patients with this life-threatening disease, Health Right Director Jeff Graham said.

“This is one more step in trying to make life better for patients with Hepatitis C. We already have a similar program designed to help diabetic patients. The whole goal is to better the lifestyle of these patients,” he said.

Not everyone will get the same results from the treatment, however.

“There are different types of Hepatitis C. Type 1 is most resistant to medication therapy,” Winter said. “Patients also have to be committed to the program and follow through with their role in the program.”

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that damages the liver. The disease can lie dormant for many years and presents no symptoms.

“Usually, Hepatitis C is found accidentally through blood work that shows an elevated liver enzyme,” Winter said. “Some of these patients could have contracted the disease 20 years ago.”

Some cases have resulted from blood transfusions performed in hospitals years ago before stricter blood screening measures were put into place.

“There is extensive screening done today, so blood products used by hospitals are safer than ever before,” Winter said.

Hepatitis C can be contracted through IV drug use and the sharing of needles. There is growing concern about its possible link to tattoo ink and body piercing, she said.

“Even if tattoo artists use a clean needle each time, there is a possibility that the ink itself may become contaminated if the artist tattoos someone who has the disease. The needle is placed back into the ink, and that’s where the contamination could take place,” Winter said.

The disease is also spread through internasal cocaine use and can be transmitted by blood transfer during unprotected sex, she said.

Community support has made the Hepatitis C education and treatment program possible, Winter said.

Roche Pharmaceuticals is donating the medication and starter packs and offers a 24-hour hotline service.

Beckley optometrist Dr. Mark Holliday provides free eye exams. Beckley-ARH provides free ultrasounds for the diagnosis of Hepatitis C, and Raleigh General Hospital provides free lab work for the patients.

“Without this kind of help, we would not be able to help these patients,” Winter said. “The community support and the volunteer efforts and free services make it possible for these patients to take part in this program.”

Dr. Olivio Romani, assistant medical director at Summers County Health Right, is writing and overseeing the medical protocol for the program under medical director Dr. Jorge Gordino.

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