Camp Johnson offering free Hep C testing for veterans

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Jeff Comstock, a Burlington resident and U.S. Navy veteran, believes he picked up the virus in the service. It lay undetected for decades until he learned of his diagnosis in 2005. He’s now considered cured, and is working with the American Legion to encourage veterans to attend a free testing event at Camp Johnson this weekend. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Camp Johnson is offering free and confidential hepatitis C testing for veterans this Friday and Saturday.

Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-borne virus and is believed to affect nearly 4 million people in the U.S., including 1 in 30 Baby Boomers, stats from the University of Vermont Medical Center show.

Though types of the virus range, hepatitis A, B and C are most common. The latter kills more Americans than any other infectious disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Doris Strader, a gastroenterologist who runs a liver clinic at the UVM Medical Center, said since the virus is asymptomatic, most people don’t find out they’re infected for many years.

Certain populations are at higher risk, including those born between 1945 and 1965, though researchers aren’t sure why.

Veterans who served between 1965 and 1985 are also strongly encouraged to get tested since they’re five times more likely to be infected; that risk doubles for Vietnam-era vets.

Many believe that’s due to the vaccination techniques during that period.

To streamline the process, the U.S. military employed a reusable injection gun that blasted vaccines into servicemen and woman en masse.

Veteran advocate groups say if the patient flinched, his or her skin would break and contaminate the gun. The departments of defense and veterans’ affairs rejected the idea, though the latter admits on its website the link is “plausible.”

Blood transfusions carried a similar risk, Strader said.

Unaware a virus could be transmitted by blood, military doctors rarely changed needles. Other behaviors common to the military, like the sharing of razors or amateur tattoos, may also have contributed, Strader said.

Researchers discovered hepatitis C in the late 1980s, and the ability to test came a few years later. But often, it isn’t until people undergo regular bloodwork that the disease is discovered, Strader said.

That’s how veteran Jeff Comstock, a Burlington resident who served in the U.S. Navy from 1973 to 1977, learned of his diagnosis. In 2005, annual checkups started showing elevated liver enzymes, and his doctor recommended he be tested.

Comstock believes he picked up the virus while in the service, which means he lived with it for over three decades as it slowly wore down his liver.

“It’s almost a feeling as if your body betrayed you,” he said. “Your liver becomes your own enemy. It sort of feels like a potential time bomb.”

Four months in to a six-month treatment regimen, Comstock learned it wasn’t working. He underwent frequent monitoring for the next seven years to make sure his liver wasn’t deteriorating further.

Beyond that, he could do little but wait.

Finally, in 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new treatment regimen. Comstock’s doctor suggested he again try treatment. Six months later, the virus in Comstock’s body was nearly undetectable.

The American Liver Foundation says the virus is considered cured if it’s not detected in the blood three months after treatment.

In recent years, treatment has improved to the point where more than 90 percent of patients are cured, UVM data shows.

Comstock is now working with the American Legion to host the testing here in Vermont. He contacted the organizers of a similar event in New York last year and has worked to plan and publicize the event in Colchester by distributing posters to Legion posts around the state.

Part of that work is bridging the stigma that surrounds hepatitis C, since the diagnosis can often sound self-incriminating for a risky lifestyle or behavior choices.

Comstock noticed the recognized list of potential risk factors has grown, and said it’s one of the reasons he believes the immunization discovery may benefit veterans.

“If the real focus is about the public health — trying to help save other people’s lives — you have to make a commitment to getting past the sensitive subject,” he said.

He understands how shocking a positive test can be and said his time in limbo was like “living in the shadow.” Still, getting tested is the first step toward reclaiming your life, he said.

“It’s like you get your future back,” he said.

Free testing will be held Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 789 Vt. National Guard Road, Colchester. Veterans are asked to bring identification for security access to Camp Johnson. Proof of military discharge is not required for the screening.