NORTH ADAMS — After new treatment became available for hepatitis C, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began an effort to screen and treat more veterans for the infection.
At the helm of that initiative: Dr. Angela Park, a North Adams native and clinical pharmacy specialist who works remotely for the Veterans Health Administration based in Washington.
Park, who lives in Easthampton, and her West Coast-based colleague, Rachel Gonzalez, were two of seven people from around the world to be named hepatitis elimination champions recently by the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination.
From 2014 to 2019, Park led the VA’s Hepatitis C Innovation Team Collaborative, which increased screening rates and led to the treatment of more than 100,000 veterans.
“In particular, we know the veteran population has a higher prevalence of hepatitis C,” Park said. “By about three times as much.”
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by a virus that is spread through the blood of an infected person.
“For some people, hepatitis C is a short-term illness,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website reads, but for more than half of people who become infected with the hepatitis C virus, it becomes a long-term, chronic infection.
Why do veterans have higher rates of the infection? One reason is that a large percentage of veterans were born between 1945 and 1965, Park said, and “hepatitis C wasn’t discovered until the 1980s. That age range was exposed to potential risks without knowing that.”
Screening rates for veterans born during those years increased from 65 percent to more than 85 percent under the initiative, according to Park.
“Around 2014, new medications became available to treat hepatitis C that were more effective and had less side effects and were easier to make than previously,” Park said.
The new treatment didn’t require weekly injections, like other options available, Park said.
“I think it was just a huge opportunity. The treatment was available, and we have a population that only a certain proportion had ever attempted to be treated,” Park said. “We can do it, and so we should.”
A major part of the initiative was to get more people screened for the infection. About half of people who have hepatitis C don’t have symptoms and don’t know they are infected, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Teams in different areas of the country used various methods to encourage screenings.
“There were a variety of different efforts that took place, and people were creative and innovative about it,” Park said.
“There were health fairs and large events where we have the opportunity through Veterans Services to reach veterans in different ways. We had social media campaigns. We had actual ad campaigns in at least a dozen major cities across the country.”
Signs went up on subways and buses, she said. “There was a lot of promotion.”
The VA also sent out letters recommending screenings.
“One thing that came out early on was an idea to send letters,” Park said. “There were several different letter campaigns that went out across the VA.”
Park said she was humbled and honored to receive the recognition from the Coalition for Global Hepatitis Elimination.
“We do a lot of work, but usually behind the scenes,” she said. “To have this kind of recognition was really shocking.”