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UIS Professors test homeless for Hepatitis C

Jessica Bayer, Assistant Editor for Features

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Kanwal Alvarez, assistant professor of biology, and Josiah Alamu, associate professor of public health, have big plans set in place to test for Hepatitis C within the homeless population of Central Illinois with the help of five UIS students.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Hepatitis C is a very contagious liver disease of varying severity. It surfaces when an individual is infected with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and is generally spread through contact with the blood of an infected person. Nowadays, this virus is often spread when individuals share infected needles.

The CDC reports that “Of every 100 people infected with the Hepatitis C virus, about 75-85 people will develop chronic Hepatitis C virus infection; of those, 60-70 people will go on to develop chronic liver disease, 5-20 people will go on to develop cirrhosis over a period of 20-30 years and 1-5 people will die from cirrhosis or liver cancer.”

This idea came about because Alamu was interested in gathering information on this virus within a population that is not always accessible: the homeless and those in prisons. The study went toward the homeless because prisons in the area refused to let the researchers in.

According to Alvarez, there are three main goals behind this research. “The goals are to look at the prevalence of HCV among the homeless population, […] to figure out the mode of transmission among these people, […] and to give students an onsite/in-the-field experience,” she stated.

“We are collecting this data so we can apply for a large grant that will cover testing in all of Illinois,” said Alamu. “This study is currently limited to just Central Illinois.”

“This is sort of like a pilot study. We will do this, we figure out what is within Central Illinois, and then we can expand it to all of Illinois, which is our goal,” said Alvarez. “You need something to prove to the people who are going to give you thousands of dollars that you are capable of doing this work and that there is a need.”

To test for this virus among the homeless, the group will go out to homeless shelters in the area and ask for volunteers. As of right now, the group has done one test run and tested 20 homeless individuals. They are hoping to test between 400 and 500 throughout Central Illinois for this pilot study.

If an individual tests positive for the virus, the group will take a blood sample which will be used to do some molecular genotyping. This will help determine which subtype of the hepatitis virus is prevalent in this region of Illinois.

The individual is then referred to the Public Health Department and SIU School of Medicine, but considering these homeless individuals do not have money or insurance, the tax payers are the ones who pay for their treatment, which is $90,000 for three months of pills for one patient.

However, this is cheaper than the individual getting cirrhosis of the liver and needing a $200,000-plus liver transplant. “If we can identify this disease early it would cost us less,” said Alvarez.

The group has already run into a few problems, one of which is being granted access into numerous homeless shelters. “I think it is because they don’t want to be labeled as harbors of Hepatitis. Our goal is not to label anybody,” said Alvarez.

“I also think they are worried about volunteers,” she added. “If there are too many homeless people who have [Hepatitis] C, then not as many people are going to want to volunteer.”

The other problem is funding. A pack of 20 OraSure rapid HCV test kits costs $435 without shipping. In order to raise money for these kits, the group has created a Tilt fundraising page for individuals to donate money. They have already surpassed their bare minimum amount needed, which was $500. So far, the group has raised $670, but they hope to raise up to $2,000 by the middle of December.

This fundraising page is also being used to raise awareness about Hepatitis C and share important information with the general public.

If you would like to help support Hepatitis C research among the Central Illinois homeless population, you can donate at http://go.uis.edu/homeless/.

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UIS Professors test homeless for Hepatitis C