The Center for Research to Advance Community Health (ReACH), part of the Health Science Center, was recognized May 19 by the White House at its 2016 National Hepatitis Testing Day observance in Washington, D.C.
The ReACH Center’s initiatives to screen, evaluate and cure chronic hepatitis C virus infection in diverse health care settings serving low-income populations across South Texas garnered praise from the federal government.
The Viral Hepatitis Testing Recognition Award is being given by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and recognizes four ReACH projects that have been conducted since 2012 with funding from multiple federal and state agencies. These projects follow the new national guidelines to test everyone in the U.S. who was born from 1945 through 1965–the baby boomers– for hepatitis C.
Barbara J. Turner, M.D., director of the ReACH Center, accepted the honor at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the grounds of the White House.
According to HHS, honored programs were selected from nominations by state viral hepatitis prevention coordinators and national viral hepatitis advocates. Recognition is based on documented success in reaching difficult-to-contact populations, ensuring a full diagnostic workup, linking persons identified as being chronically infected into care, and tracking data on program activities.
Silent infection, severe damage
The focus on hepatitis C virus reflects the fact that more than 3.5 million persons in the U.S. have chronic hepatitis C, making it by far the most-common blood-borne infection in the nation. More than half of people living with chronic hepatitis C are unaware of having this disease because it usually causes no symptoms for decades until suddenly people find that they have developed severe liver damage. With upwards of 400,000 Texans estimated to be chronically infected, the impetus for these types of programs is clear.
“Without treatment, the disease may cause liver scarring and failure and, in some cases, liver cancer,” Dr. Turner said. “In fact, hepatitis C infection is the most common reason for liver transplantation for end-stage liver disease in the U.S. and it is also the main reason that people get liver cancer. Deaths from liver cancer are rapidly increasing in the U.S.”
Patients identified and treated
Much of ReACH’s current work stems from successes and lessons learned through an earlier screening program within an inpatient setting based in the University Health System. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded this program. In that program, 4,582 or 90 percent of eligible baby boomers were tested for hepatitis C and 175 (4 percent of all tested patients) had chronic infection. Most of these patients have been managed as outpatients and at least one-third have received curative treatment for hepatitis C.
ReACH currently has three preventive hepatitis C screening and linkage-to-care programs across the South Texas area, two of which are funded by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) as a section 1115 waiver, while the third receives support through the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT). All of the programs focus especially on underserved, primarily Hispanic patient populations, with emphasis placed on education, case management and linkage to new, highly-effective therapies.
Dr. Turner is a practicing general internist and a health services researcher who joined the School of Medicine in 2010 from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the James D. and Ona I. Dye Professor of Medicine at the Health Science Center.