By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Mercer County has the highest number of hepatitis B cases in West Virginia — the state with the most cases in the nation — but the local health department is now getting ready to offer a vaccine against the disease.
The Mercer County Health Department will be offering free hepatitis B vaccine to people who are at the highest risk for contracting the disease, said public health nurse Judy Bolton, RN.
“We’re just now getting started,” Bolton said Tuesday.
People who are interested in being vaccinated should call the health department at 304-324-8367 to see when the vaccine will be available, Bolton added.
“This is a major thing, to have the vaccine for the high-risk people,” she said.
Mercer County is No. 1 in the nation for its rate of hepatitis B cases, Bolton said. The latest figures are two to three years old. New ones have not been issued recently.
The national rate for hepatitis B is 1.2 per 100,000 people. In West Virginia, the rate is 3.6 per 100,000, Bolton said. Mercer County’s rate is 36 per 100,000.
“So it’s quite a bit above the national average and quite a bit above the state rate,” she said.
Nothing new in the way of hepatitis B rate figures has been issued, but Bolton did not believe that they had changed very much.
“I don’t have any reason to think it’s changed because we’ve been busy,” she said.
West Virginia is third in the nation for hepatitis C cases.
“We make an assumption that it has to do with the high drug use,” Bolton said of the high hepatitis numbers. “B and C are contracted by coming into contact with the blood of somebody that is infected.”
This exposure could happen by injecting or snorting drugs. It takes very little blood, even microscopic amounts, to carry a hepatitis infection. Hepatitis B is also sexually transmitted, she added.
Hepatitis can also be contracted by means such as sharing the glucose monitors used by people with diabetes. Other high risk factors include multiple sex partners, a history of sexually-transmitted diseases, a history of tattooing or body piercing, a history of drug use with needles or snorting, contact with a known hepatitis B or C person, and being hepatitis C positive and hepatitis B negative.
The vaccine is administered in a series of three shots that can be completed in 16 weeks. It is important to have all three shots in order to be protected, according to information provided by the Mercer County Health Department.
There is no program that allows the health department do free hepatitis tests for people who request them, Bolton said. If the department is investigating a case, tests are done to check to people who may have contracted the disease. People who want to be tested for hepatitis must go to their family physicians and order the test.
Another disease will receive less funding for testing because is less prevalent in Mercer County than in other parts of the state. For this reason, the local health department’s charges for HIV testing may change.
The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Division of STD, HIV and hepatitis will see a federal reduction of $201,368 in 2013 as part of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. This plan calls for a redirection of funds to areas of the country that have a greater number of HIV/AIDS disease cases, according to a statement from the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The Mercer County Health Department was told about this situation Monday, Bolton said. No decision had been made about how this will impact local HIV testing.
“We have been notified,” Bolton said. “We’re still trying to sort it out.”
What was cut from the health department was the reimbursement it receives for the testing; the testing itself is done at a state lab, she said.
“We’ll have to decide what we’re going to do exactly. There may be a situation where we charge for some testing and others were testing is free. Those kind of official decisions will have to be made,” Bolton stated.
Mercer County has a low instance of HIV positives, she said.
“I’ve got to add that if testing is through a doctor’s office, that’s one thing they do not have to report to us,” Bolton said.
Doctors report the HIV cases to the state level, but the results are not shared with the county health departments because of confidentiality regulations.