Thursday, April 07, 2016

A test, a cure: North Country veterans battle hepatitis C

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Veterans in the Champlain Valley are celebrating a national victory for servicemen and...

Mar 30, 2016 — by Zach Hirsch (Plattsburgh Correspondent) , in Morrisonville, NY

Danny Kaifetz said he contracted hepatitis C while serving in the Marine Corps. "I promised to put my life on the line for this country. And I never thought it would be in this manner or at this deferred date," he said. Photo: Zach Hirsch

Mar 30, 2016 — Veterans in the Champlain Valley are celebrating a national victory for servicemen and women who have hepatitis C, a potentially lethal liver disease common among people who served in the Vietnam War.

There is a cure. And now, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said it will give that cure to all veterans with hepatitis C. In an announcement earlier this month, the VA said it can afford that thanks to a boost from Congress. The drugs are also starting to become more affordable.

It’s a huge relief for American Legion Post 1619, near Plattsburgh. The veterans there have been hard at work for months fighting to get people the treatment they need, and trying to end the stigma associated with the disease.

On a Friday afternoon about a month ago, it was happy hour at the American Legion Post in Morrisonville, just west of Plattsburgh. People ate and drank beer at the bar, and downstairs, nurses from the local hospital turned the basement into a clinic. They offered free, anonymous testing for hepatitis C virus, or HCV.

“And it’s just like a diabetes test. One drop of blood, bingo, 20 minutes, you’re on your way,” said Mike Rock, the post’s commander. He’s been trying to spread the word that Vietnam War-era veterans have a high chance of having HCV. Civilians born between 1945 and 1965 are also considered at risk.

Hepatitis C virus was discovered in the late 1980s. It became clear that people were catching it from blood-to-blood contact: blood transfusions, organ transplants, and dangerous behaviors, like taking intravenous drugs.

Vietnam veterans say it was common practice to in inoculate hundreds of soldiers with the same jet gun. Photo provided by Kaifetz

The jet gun used air pressure to inject multiple vaccines in one shot without the use of a needle. Veterans say it still drew blood. Use of the gun was discontinued in 1997. Photo: Danny Kaifetz

For a lot of veterans, the chief suspect is a scary-looking device called the jet injector gun. From the 1960s up to 1997, the military used it to give soldiers multiple vaccines in one shot using air pressure. During the Vietnam War, it was common practice to inoculate hundreds of soldiers with the same gun.

“If you were supposedly completely motionless the air pressure, 150 pounds of air pressure, forced this tiny stream of vaporized liquid and air through your skin without the use of a needle. The problem was it hurt like hell and everybody flinched when you got that shot,” said Danny Kaifetz, medical information officer with the American Legion post. He’s the leader of the public awareness campaign. He has HCV.

He said when soldiers flinched, their skin broke and bled. And since the injector gun was right up against the arm, blood got on the gun and inside the vaccine chamber. “So you had an unsterilized gun in untrained hands pulling blood out of one person and giving it to another,” Kaifetz said.

There’s a huge debate about the jet injector gun. Veterans, their advocates, and some doctors say the gun likely transmitted hepatitis C. The Defense Department and the VA mostly reject that idea. Federal officials didn’t want to go on tape for this story, but in emails said there is no scientific evidence the gun spread the virus.

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But the VA said a link between the jet injector gun and the disease is “biologically plausible.” It’s a huge deal for Kaifetz and the more than 200,000 veterans believed to have HCV. It means they are sick because of a military practice – not from something they did wrong, something taboo like taking intravenous drugs.

“We wanted to make the jet gun the great equalizer, that a guy can look at his 14-year-old daughter and say I’m going to get tested for hep-C. The jet gun washed away the stigma of even getting tested,” Kaifetz said. He was in the Marine Corps in the 1970s. He said the jet gun must have been what gave him HCV, because he never ended up seeing combat. “I was diagnosed in 2011. In 2012 I was told I was neither a candidate for treatment nor for transplant. So basically my options were zero,” he said.

He waited years before he told anyone he was sick. He said he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him. Then, at the end of last year, his American Legion Post was remembering veterans who died from HCV. “And that’s when I came forward and said I’m going to try to help others from going through this dark uncertainty because it’s very hard on you psychologically,” Kaifetz said.

Hepatitis C virus used to be a death sentence, but now there are drugs almost guaranteed to cure it. And Kaifetz just started the treatment. He got the call from the VA hospital in Albany last month. “You know when I thought back, and I’ll tell you what got me through it is my oath of enlistment. I promised to put my life on the line for this country. And I never thought it would be in this manner or at this deferred date, but I told myself, I said, ‘You still are obligated to that oath you took.’ I apologize," he said. "This isn’t the – you talked about why don’t you tell people you’re sick. I guess this is part of it. It’s never an easy conversation.”

Kaifetz hosted a free, anonymous hepatitis C screening at American Legion Post 1619 last month. Photo: Mountain Lake PBS.

Back at the American Legion Post in Morrisonville, the free HCV screening was a huge success. Four hundred veterans were tested. Kaifetz said there were “multiple positive tests,” although he won't say how many. Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital, the hospital that helped with the testing, also has not released the results.

He said the next step is to test veterans in other parts of the state. “I know our post would like to serve as the blue print for other posts,” Kaifetz said.

As for Kaifetz, he just wants to focus on getting better. He said his energy is low and he looks at the calendar every day, wondering when he’ll start to feel a difference.

Thanks to Mountain Lake PBS for help with some of the audio in this story.



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