Hepatitis Screening Efforts Increase Among Cherokee Native Americans

The Cherokee Nation has partnered with the CDC and other government agencies to increase awareness about hepatitis C virus.

The Cherokee Nation has recently announced that they have screened more than 23,000 Native American patients for hepatitis C virus.

They have conducted these screenings since launching a hepatitis C virus elimination project that was created through a partnership with the CDC, according to the government’s press release. The Cherokee Nation is the government of the Cherokee Native Americans, which includes over 317,000 individuals, and is located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

Last year, their Health Services department partnered with the CDC, the University of Oklahoma, and the state’s Department of Health to conduct a study.

The study, Optimizing Care and Setting a Path Towards Elimination of Disease and Disparity, was created to increase efforts in prevention and treatment of hepatitis C virus. The Gilead Foundation also gave the government $1.5 million to assist with screening kits and research costs, according to the press release.

The goal of the study is to screen 80,000 individuals for hepatitis C virus over a 3-year period of time. In just a year, they have screened 23,000 individuals for the virus. Of those 23,000 individuals, there were 400 new cases of hepatitis C virus, and nearly 300 patients are either receiving treatment, or have been cured, the Cherokee Nation reported.

“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 John Ward, MD, director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis.

Recently, access to the hepatitis C virus treatment has been scrutinized because health insurance companies have been prioritizing who can receive treatment due to costs. This means that treatment will only be given to patients with advanced fibrosis or cirrhosis, while patients in lesser stages of the disease will not receive the treatment.

However, this does not seem to be the case in the Cherokee Nation, since a majority of individuals have received the needed treatments.

“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 recently honored by the White House for the commitment to awareness and prevention of hepatitis C virus. He has also worked on training the Chickasaw Nation and with the Indian Health Services facility in Oklahoma City to further prevention and treatment efforts across the Native American population, according to the Cherokee Nation.

The Cherokee Nation has also created a Hepatitis C Awareness Day that will likely be observed annually to reinforce efforts.

“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.”