The VA’s Hepatitis C Problem

Martin Dames is a highly decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He received the Bronze Star for heroism in the combat zone and three Purple Hearts for injuries he suffered while fighting. He made it out alive, only to find out years later that those combat wounds got him infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a deadly blood-borne pathogen discovered in 1989 that claims about 19,000 lives annually, a large number of them veterans. That number is growing every year.

A chronic infection in around 80 percent of cases, HCV often shows no signs of its corrosive presence until extensive liver scarring occurs after decades of infection. In some cases, the disease isn’t found until it has led to cirrhosis—advanced and potentially lethal amounts of scarring. Infection with the virus is a leading cause of liver cancer and transplants in the U.S.

Some 3.5 million Americans are infected, including an estimated 234,000 veterans. Approximately 174,000 veterans in government care have been diagnosed with hepatitis C, but an additional 50,000 are thought to carry the infection unbeknownst to them. For treatment, those veterans who know they are sick must go to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its health care services extension: the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the largest provider of hepatitis C care in the nation. The VHA serves nearly 9 million patients at over 1,700 sites, but as Dames and many other veterans.


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