Published November 1, 2016
TAHLEQUAH – The Cherokee Nation has screened 23,000 Native American patients for hepatitis C, a year after becoming the first tribe in the nation to launch a hepatitis C elimination project with assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Last fall, the Cherokee Nation announced its study, Optimizing Care and Setting a Path Towards Elimination of Disease and Disparity, with researchers to prevent and treat the virus.
Cherokee Nation Health Services department partnered with CDC, the Oklahoma Department of Health and the University of Oklahoma to help research and track results. The Gilead Foundation donated $1.5 million to help with screening kits and research.
The tribe’s goal is to screen 80,000 patients between the ages of 20 and 65 for hepatitis C over three years. During the past year, the tribe has screened 23,000 patients. Of those screened, about 400 new patients tested positive and nearly 300 patients are either currently being treated for hepatitis C or have been cured.
“A year into our program we are seeing a high success rate to screen and treat patients, and our hope is to eliminate this disease entirely within the Cherokee population,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “Staying ahead of the rate of infection requires vigilant testing, screening, treatment and creative strategies to prevent future cases. I’m proud that the Cherokee Nation can work on preventative measures to help our people now and in the future.”
CDC is assisting the coalition of public health, clinical care and academic medicine partners in monitoring and evaluating the project.
“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, unlicensed tattooing or having 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 CDC.
“Everything is going very well and progressing, and we’re meeting the goals we set,” said Cherokee Nation’s Director of Infectious Diseases Jorge Mera. “I’d like our patients to know they can request to be screened by a provider, and, if they have the virus, the Cherokee Nation has a cure.”
Mera was honored by the White House earlier this year for demonstrating outstanding commitment to viral hepatitis awareness and prevention. Mera said he has worked on training with the Chickasaw Nation and Indian Health Service facility in Oklahoma City. Other tribes that are interested in elimination plans have also reached out in the past year.
On Oct. 30, 2015, Chief Baker signed a proclamation declaring Hepatitis C Awareness Day in the Cherokee Nation, and tribal officials want to observe it again this year.
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. For more information about the elimination project or to get screened, contact a provider at http://www.cherokee.org/Services/Health/HealthCentersHospitals.aspx.