The men and women who keep America moving are going to be “Rolling Against Hepatitis C” for the next few years. Big rig truck drivers nationwide will be raising awareness about the deadly liver disease while getting tested themselves.
Truckers are at 8.5 times greater risk than the general population for contracting hepatitis C. Hepatitis C, a virus discovered just over two decades ago, slowly destroys the liver, resulting in cirrhosis, fibrosis, liver cancer, and often death.
But now there’s a cure for hepatitis C that is not only far more effective than previous treatments but also much easier to tolerate. Coupled with a rapid test manufactured by OraSure, getting tested and treated for hepatitis C has never been easier.
OraSure has teamed up with AbbVie, maker of pharmaceuticals to treat hepatitis C that will be coming to market soon, to spread the word about hepatitis testing and treatment. The current testing campaign for truckers is just one part of a large, five-year agreement to get at-risk Americans tested.
“Our economy depends on freight movement,” OraSure CEO Doug Michels told Healthline. “Over the road truck drivers are critically important.”
As it is, America has a shortage of truckers. The American Trucking Association estimates that 25,000 additional truckers are needed right now. That number is expected to balloon to more than 200,000 by 2022.
“We have the opportunity to turn this disease on its head and significantly reduce morbidity and mortality,” Michels said.
Why Start with Truckers?
The average age of the American trucker is 55, which puts them in the baby-boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). Baby boomers, especially men, are the most at-risk demographic in America for hepatitis C. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended every baby boomer in the nation be tested for the virus.
That's because boomers could have contracted the disease through a blood transfusion, before scientists even knew what the disease was or how to test for it. Hepatitis C nowadays is usually spread through injection drug use or sharing straws or bills to snort drugs.
Although baby boomers today may work as professionals and be far removed from a time when they experimented with drugs, it only takes one incident to contract the disease. Because hepatitis C can take decades to present symptoms, patients may have no idea they are infected.
The disease was also spread years ago in hospital settings. Prior to the discovery of HIV, hospital sterilization procedures were far more lax than they are today.
Truckers are at an added risk because of their tendency to get tattoos. Tattoo sterilization requirements were nil back in the 1970s, with artists often using the same needles and inkwells many times over.
Michels noted that during high school football years ago, players shared razors while shaving their ankles before taping them. Nobody gave it a second thought, he said.
Hepatitis C Versus HIV
OraSure revolutionized the field of HIV testing when it released a rapid test in the form of a simple oral swab. Testing suddenly became available in locations such as gay nightclubs, getting thousands of people into testing and treatment.
But the hepatitis C virus, also known as HCV, is far more prevalent than HIV. About 1.2 million Americans have HIV, compared to estimates of more than 3 million Americans with HCV.
Whereas about 15 percent of Americans with HIV do not know they have the virus, a whopping three-fourths with HCV are unaware they are infected.
HCV has even surpassed HIV in the number of people killed each year. More than 16,000 people died from HCV in 2010, according to the CDC.
Of 7 million truckers nationwide, about 4 million are employed through corporations, said Dr. Pamela Thomas, who is working with the Healthy Trucking Association of America. “A lot of independent truckers aren’t insured,” Thomas told Healthline. “Hopefully with ACA, they may have signed up.”
She urges truckers to get tested. “People really should get tested and treated to prevent more severe issues later on," Thomas said. "The liver is one of those organs that will regenerate some, even if a little piece is left.”
Testing Coming to Retail Outlets
The OraSure-AbbVie partnership goes far beyond reaching out to truckers. AbbVie is launching a patient support program to assist patients who test positive.
AbbVie is also targeting more than 10,000 doctors to educate them about the OraQuick HCV test. And OraSure is in discussions with several major retail pharmacies to make the test available at their stores.
Michels said all insurance companies as well as Medicare and Medicaid pay for hepatitis C testing. There is also a payment assistance program through OraSure for the uninsured.
Several states have adopted laws requiring physicians to test baby boomers for HCV, including New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Colorado, Michels said. Eight other states have legislation pending.