Anne Arundel County is offering free hepatitis C testing as officials look to target two particularly vulnerable populations: baby boomers and intravenous drug users.
Acting county health officer Fran Phillips said the county has begun offering the service at Anne Arundel County Health Center in Glen Burnie.
While hepatitis C diagnoses have stayed relatively consistent over the past five years in the county, the free service comes as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending all baby boomers — people born between 1945 and 1965 — get tested. Those who inject illegal drugs are also considered to be at a higher risk of infection, as the disease can be passed through unsterilized syringes.
Phillips said she was speaking with Anaedozie’s unit when she came up with the idea for the free testing.
“I said ‘Look, we, like most other counties, we have a robust program for people HIV and AIDS,’" she said. “We’re not doing anything for people with hepatitis.”
“What that did, it opened up a very important discussion to the point that … we just started hepatitis C testing free for intravenous drug users (and) for other kinds of people (who) have other types of risk factors,” Phillips said.
Against the backdrop of an already historically deadly opioid crisis, she said opening hepatitis C testing to those with the largest risk factors serves a dual purpose. Phillips said baby boomers are considered at a higher risk due to the lack of standard blood testing for transfusions at hospitals during the time period.
“It’s our job to then link people to treatment and people who can’t afford it, we’re going to get them treatment,” she added.
Hepatitis C can lead to serious liver complications, such as cirrhosis or liver cancer. The CDC says “many people infected with the Hepatitis C virus do not develop symptoms” and can be unknowing carriers.
While the virus was considered incurable for years, the FDA has approved drugs in recent years that tout successful cure rates higher than 90 percent. The price and insurer’s willingness to pay have become topics of controversy, however, with the drugs costing tens of thousands of dollars.
As for the spread of the disease, Phillips said that county officials have not come to an agreement as to how to implement a clean needle exchange program, something Baltimore city and 38 other states haved offered in some form, according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network.
Baltimore city has implemented a mobile version of the program, which uses a vehicle that travels in the city to accept used needles in exchange for clean ones. In July, a state health department official said Anne Arundel was one of five other counties that were “pretty far along in terms of the development of their application and their program.”
Spokeswoman Brittany Fowler said other counties have moved further with their applications, with Washington County implementing an exchange program and Baltimore County — a similarly sized county with nearly 300,000 more people — with an application for a program already approved by the state health department.
Fowler added tht Anne Arundel has “not yet reached out to the Department for development support" since July. St. Mary's, Cecil, Frederick, Howard, Prince George’s and Wicomico counties have all begun developing applications as well.
Phillips said the county’s issue stem mainly from the geography of the county, which ranges from the rural regions in the south to the densely populated Baltimore suburbs. This complicates developing a uniform solution for the county with either mobile or stationary exchange programs, she said.
But Maryland stands out in the tri-state area, as New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all have at least two sites for needle exchanges. They are mostly in urban areas like Atlantic City, Camden, the boroughs in New York City, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.