Fields convenes hepatitis C breakfast forum

By ALVIN PONDER | 8/21/2014, 2:06 p.m.

On the morning of July 25, “Hepatitis C and Its Impact on the Black Community” was the subject of a breakfast forum held at the Alhambra Ballroom in Central Harlem.

The forum was organized by C. Virginia Fields, president and chief operating officer of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. The panelists were Dr. Joan Culpepper-Morgan of Harlem Hospital, Daniel Raymond, director of Harm Reduction Coalition and Gloria Searson, founder and president of the Coalition on Positive Health Empowerment, better known as COPE. Participating in the forum were Public Advocate Letitia James, Assembly Member Keith Wright, Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, and Council Member Inez Dickens.

Attended by more than 200 community activists, the forum was held on the second anniversary of the National African- American Hepatitis C Action Day.

“This is a community mobilization initiative that is aimed primarily at reducing the high incidence of Hepatitis C virus infection among African Americans,” said Fields, also the forum’s moderator. “Today, we want to draw attention to this neglected national public health disparity, between Blacks and whites infected with Hepatitis C virus, and promote education, testing and treatment.”

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver, a condition that is most often caused by a virus, such as the Hepatitis C virus. But having an inflamed liver is anything but normal. Stopping the cause of the inflammation and being treated with medication can help liver cells to heal. Otherwise, scar tissue forms inside the liver, in place of the sick liver cells, leading to liver cirrhosis and severe liver damage or, up to two to four decades after the infection, liver cancer. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver transplants. Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against the Hepatitis C virus.

People can get hepatitis C if they come in contact with the blood of someone who has hepatitis C. The most common way people get hepatitis C is by past or current injection-drug use and possibly even by sexual contact with a hepatitis-C-infected individual.

More than 200,000 New Yorkers are living with the Hepatitis C virus, and most do not know their status. The only way to know for sure if you have hepatitis C is to be screened for it by a blood test.

“Testing people now will save lives in the future,” said NYC Public Advocate Letitia James. “Hepatitis C can be cured.”

James said baby boomers, specifically people born between 1945 and 1965, account for 73 percent of all hepatitis-C-associated deaths.

When Assembly Member Gottfried reflected on “baby boomer” legislation, he told a story. “Assembly Member Kenneth Peter Zebrowski, from Rockland County, was a baby boomer who’d had surgery several decades ago,” said Gottfried. “It never occurred to him that he needed to get tested, and he died from hepatitis C. His son, Kenneth Paul Zebrowski, was elected to fill his assembly seat and sponsored legislation to require the offering of hepatitis C testing.”

New York is the first state to mandate the offering of hepatitis C testing to baby boomers. Fields said, “New York State has led the way with respect to hepatitis C legislation across the nation.”

Assembly Member Keith Wright commended Fields and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS as “an august organization,” for organizing the breakfast forum.

Culpepper-Morgan, chief of the Department of Gastroenterology at Harlem Hospital Center and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, was the medical expert at the forum.

“About 3 to 4 million individuals in this country are infected with hepatitis C,” said Culpepper-Morgan. “But what we’re going to concentrate on today is that although we look at this disease as a problem in our country, it affects communities of color disproportionately.”

She indicated that the rates of Hepatitis C virus infection and Hepatitis C virus-related death rates are both twice as high for Black people as for non-Hispanic whites.

“We are now sitting in one of the hotbeds of this virus. Central Harlem and the South Bronx represents another hotbed of hepatitis C,” said Culpepper-Morgan.

Medicare will cover Hepatitis C virus testing for adults as long as it is ordered by a primary health care provider, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“Hepatitis C treatment and hepatitis C treatment resources cannot be allocated equally across the board,” said Culpepper-Morgan. “They have to be concentrated in communities that need them, and this is indeed one of those communities.”

Experts say 60 percent of people living in Harlem with HIV have hepatitis C. But the rates of death involving HIV patients and hepatitis C patients are on different trajectories.

“We’re getting HIV under control as hepatitis C is getting out of control,” said Culpepper-Morgan. “People are dying from hepatitis C more often than they are dying from HIV.”

Culpepper-Morgan said the treatment for hepatitis C is a combination of two medicines: interferon and ribavirin. Interferon is injected under the skin once a week. Ribavirin is a pill that is swallowed. Treatment usually last for 12 months; sometimes it is shorter. Overall, 50 to 80 percent of people treated are cured.

“We have interferon-free regimens that are coming down the pike,” said Culpepper-Morgan.“What does that mean? That means less side effects, and pills only.”

The second panelist, Daniel Raymond, policy director of Harm Reduction Coalition, said advocates ought to place the hepatitis C epidemic in the context of the dialogue of the American minority-rights activism.

“All of those patterns that result in geographic segregation, that result in intensifying policing, that result in the school-to-prison pipeline, the entire risk of incarceration and racial profiling, all of those are very much alive today,” said Raymond. “And the hepatitis C epidemic can be seen as a side effect of those policies.”

The last panelist to speak was Gloria Searson, founder of COPE, a membership organization dedicated to empowering people with HIV and hepatitis C.

A survivor of HIV, Searson said, “National African-American Hepatitis C Action Day is a day we got to take. One day out of our busy lives dedicated to taking some action whether we’re the ones living with hepatitis C or not.”

She said that these are exciting times for hepatitis C treatment because people can “actually hear the word “cure”.

Council Member Inez Dickens was the last elected official to speak. She thanked Fields and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS founder and past president Debra Fraser-Howze for their “leadership in hepatitis C prevention and advocacy.”

Hadiyah Charles and Voices of Community Activists and Leaders were given special-appreciation awards for their promotion of hepatitis C awareness.

Immediately after the forum, attendees took a short walk to the Harlem State Office Building plaza at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, the location of the Harlem Hepatitis C Community Health Fair. On arrival, some received a free rapid-results hepatitis C screen test.

Dr. Alvin Ponder serves as chair of the National Action Network HIV/AIDS Committee. He can be contacted at apondermd@yahoo.com.