(CBS SF) — On Monday May 19th, you have a chance to find out whether you are infected with a serious, life-threatening virus.
Viral hepatitis is a common blood borne infection that slowly destroys the liver. You can’t live without your liver, yet few of us know if we’re even infected with one of the viruses.
Building Inspector Tom Espinosa was stunned when he found out. “The doctor told me ‘I have some good news and have some bad news.’ She said, ‘you don’t have AIDS but you have “Hep” C,’” said Espinosa.
Former San Francisco supervisor and State Assemblymember, Fiona Ma – now a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Hep B Free campaign – found out her diagnosis when she was in her 20s after she had donated blood.
“I got a letter back saying that I had hepatitis B, and that they cannot accept my blood,” said Ma.
Millions of Americans have chronic viral hepatitis, and don’t know it.
“Many people who are infected have absolutely no symptoms and that’s why it’s called a silent epidemic,” said assistant U.S. Secretary of Health, Dr. Howard Koh.
Hepatitis B and C are caused by different viruses, and are spread in different ways.
People at risk for Hepatitis B include those who: had unprotected sex with an infected individual; came in contact with blood at work; shared personal items such as nail clippers, toothbrush or razor with an infected individual; or – like Ma – were born to a Hepatitis B-infected mother.
Those at risk for Hepatitis C include those who received a blood transfusion before 1992. The most common cause is the sharing of contaminated needles.
Both Hepatitis B and C can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer – even death
“If you have liver cancer, the chance of surviving is for one year in this country is less than 50%,” said Dr. Samuel So. Dr. So is founder and director of the Asian Liver Center at Stanford.
But now, experts hope to change the equation. “We have the opportunity now to break the silence on hepatitis,” said Doctor Koh.
Around the nation, for one day, certain clinics will offer a free blood test for one or both infections.
To find out if you should get tested, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a quick online assessment that you can take.
For Hepatitis B, those at highest risk include Asian and Pacific Islanders.
“Be sure, be tested, be free,” said Ma. A driving force behind her Hep B Free campaign is the AsianWeek Foundation.
Those at highest risk for Hepatitis C include baby boomers. “Get it taken care of, ‘cause the sooner the better,” said Mr. Espinosa
That’s because lifesaving treatments are now available for chronic viral hepatitis. But you’ll only know if you get tested.