Ask Alfonso Adinolfi how he got hepatitis C and he’ll point to his upper right arm. “Right there,” he says, “that tattoo.”
He’s lived with the blood-borne virus for decades since being infected, possibly with a dirty tattoo needle. He's one of about 10,000 baby boomers in King County who are thought to have hep C, though many may not know it. So if you were born between 1945 and 1965, Seattle-King County Public Health wants you to get tested.
Hepatitis C can cause liver cancer or failure. But even if you’re infected, there’s hope. Take the experience of Adinolfi, 63.
He was a drummer and ran a music club in Pioneer Square until he started building electronic and acoustic drums in an old granary building in Kent in 1992.
Wide, blond strips of wood sit in his office, waiting to be sanded before they’re assembled. “That’s 100 percent North American rock maple,” he said as he tapped it. “This makes a beautiful sounding acoustic drum.”
That same year he started his company, he had an inkling that something was wrong with his health. His application for insurance was denied because of a test result. “They wouldn’t give me a reason, but they said I should really go see a doctor.”
Adinolfi didn’t bother until a few years later when he got tested again. This time, he learned he had hepatitis C. Still, he wasn’t sure what that meant.
“But as I started to talk to the doctor, I realized this was a lot more serious than hep A or B,” he said.
As his doctor explained the symptoms, he said, “things started to become clear to me as to why I was waking up to flu symptoms every day, and why it wasn’t normal to have a headache every day when I woke up.”
'The Stealth Virus'
Up to 5 million Americans are estimated to have chronic hepatitis C and may not know it.
“We call hepatitis C the stealth virus,” said Dr. John Scott, a specialist in viral hepatitis at Harborview Medical Center. By the time patients see him, their livers already have some degree of damage.
“What we worry about is cirrhosis, and that’s when there’s a lot of scarring in the liver,” he said.
That’s what happened to Adinolfi.
“The good news is that the liver can recover,” Scott said, “even in advanced cases, if you identify hepatitis and treat it successfully.”
But left untreated, hepatitis C can lead to serious problems, like liver cancer or failure. “The most common reason for people to get liver transplants is hepatitis C,” Scott added.
It’s not clear why the baby boom generation, known for sex, drugs and rock and roll, is at higher risk. But there are some explanations, says Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Seattle-King County Public Health.
“Some of it is because there were lots of behaviors that happened in young people during those years that could’ve potentially led to blood-borne exposures through experimentation with drugs or exposure to blood before blood was screened for hepatitis C.”
Reaching Out To Boomers
The county has been concerned about the problem for over a decade. Duchin says bare-bones funding limited the agency to focus mainly on recently acquired infections.
“So if we thought something that was happening that caused infections currently, we were always able to investigate those,” he said. “But the chronic infections that happened long ago, we weren’t able to do much for those people until recently.”
Thanks to a $6 million grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county is launching the Hepatitis C Test and Cure Project. The goal is to reach out to boomers to get tested, evaluated and linked to treatment.
The county is training and relying on primary care providers at several health care organizations to help.
Duchin acknowledged the cost of medication might put off people from getting tested -- one of the most effective drugs costs $1,000 per pill or more than $80,000 for a course of treatment. But he says there are ways to connect people with treatment.
And it’s really important to know if you’re infected, Duchin said. According to state figures, in 2013 there were more deaths from hep C than deaths related to HIV.
'A Lot To Be Thankful For'
But back in Kent, Alfonso Adinolfi has reason to celebrate with his godson over lunch. “We’re going to go out and have coconut shrimp at Salty’s,” he said.
After trying several kinds of treatments, he finally found the right one. This fall, his doctor gave him good news.
“I spent my first Thanksgiving since I was 17 clear of hep C,” Adinolfi said, “so I have a lot to be thankful for, this year.”
Adinolfi’s experience inspired his brother-in-law to get tested for the virus.
More information about the virus and about the Test and Cure Project : http://www.hepeducation.org/