Back Row (L to R): W.W. Hastings Hospital Pharmacist Dwayne David, Dr. Jana Smith, Chief Medical Director Dr. James Stallcup, Clinical Services Nurse Practitioner Whitney Essex, Dr. Jeffery Gastorf, Dr. Melissa Gastorf, Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr., Health Services Deputy Executive Director Dr. Charles Grim, Senior Director of Dental Dr. Stephen Jones, and Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Amy Meigs. Front Row (L to R): Director of Infectious Disease Dr. Jorge Mera, Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Health Services Executive Director Connie Davis.
Published October 31, 2017
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation has screened more than 40,000 tribal citizens for hepatitis C after becoming the first tribe in the country to launch an elimination project two years ago with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
October 30 was declared as Hepatitis C Awareness Day in the Cherokee Nation, and tribal and Cherokee Nation Health Services officials gathered for a proclamation signing ceremony.
The tribe’s goal is to screen 80,000 patients between the ages of 20 and 65 for hepatitis C over three years. Last October the tribe had screened 23,000 of its health services patients.
“When this program started in 2015, we had high hopes for what it would mean for the long-term health of Cherokee Nation citizens,” said Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “The positive results have been beyond even our highest expectations. We have treated and cured more than 680 people with a 90 percent success rate. That success is allowing people once afflicted with the hepatitis C virus to live healthier and happier lives. The Cherokee Nation Health Services staff has collaborated with international infectious-disease experts to create and sustain this modern health care blueprint. It’s not often a disease can be completely eliminated from a citizenry, but it’s something we are achieving in the Cherokee Nation with our hepatitis C efforts.”
Of those screened, about 1,200 new patients tested positive and more than 680 patients are either currently being treated for hepatitis C or have already been cured.
“The Cherokee Nation is demonstrating to other communities across the United States how to effectively test and treat those living with hepatitis C and prevent new infections, so that someday the threat of hepatitis C will be eliminated,” said Dr. John Ward, director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis.
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus, usually through the transfer of blood. Most people become infected with the hepatitis C virus by sharing needles, through unlicensed tattooing or because they had a blood transfusion before 1992. For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness, but for about 70 percent of people who become infected, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection, according to the CDC.
Cherokee Nation Health Services Director of Infectious Disease Dr. Jorge Mera said the project continues to gain momentum, with his office now looking more at prevention of hepatitis C, and the potential increase from the opioid crisis happening throughout the U.S.
“Our efforts now need to be directed at preventing hepatitis C, which in the United States today is driven by injected drug use,” Mera said. “Prevention strategies include expanding our medication-assisted treatment program for opioid addiction. We are also beginning a serious discussion about needle- and syringe-exchange programs.”
Cherokee Nation Health Services has partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oklahoma Department of Health to track and share knowledge.
The Cherokee Nation operates the largest tribal health care system in the country and screens for hepatitis C in all eight health centers and W.W. Hastings Hospital. The Cherokee Nation had more than 1.28 million patient visits in fiscal year 2017. For more information about the elimination project or to get screened, visit http://www.cherokee.org/Services/Health/HealthCentersHospitals.aspx.