New wave of Hep C hits Austin, but cure is available
The cure for a deadly virus is right here in Austin. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer, and it's the number one reason for liver transplants in the US.
According to the CDC, an estimated 4 million people still have Hep C.
"This is not an easy way to live and have to live," said Mark Kinzly.
There's a cost to street life, that Kinzly has paid many times over.
"A lot of people will say are you putting yourself at risk?" he said about his outreach efforts.
For more than thirty years, he's handed out food and clean needles to those in the streets.
"It's my passion. It's my purpose in life. It's why I had the opportunity to get clean again," said Kinzly.
Downtown Austin is miles away from the streets of New York City where Mark witnessed his brother's murder at the age of 17. It began a cycle of drug use that lead to him contracting Hepatitis C.
"Hep C is such a silent epidemic that is really not understood well enough in our overall community," said Kinzly.
He helped start the country's first legal syringe exchange program in Connecticut. Taking him from jail to Yale as a faculty member. It was during an employee health screening that he discovered he had Hep C.
"The biggest thing I know I can offer during the day is a kind word and some hope," said Kinzly.
He lived mostly symptom-free for years but healing seemed elusive until now.
"It's incredible. We can change people's lives now," said Community Care Clinic Dr. Imtiaz Alam.
A class of new medication is now available. Not toxic like previous treatments and in 8 to 12 weeks the patient can be cured and liver damage even reversed.
"It can be as simple as one pill a day or up to 3-4 pills a day," said Dr. Alam.
Dr. Alam runs the Hep C Clinic at CommUnityCare. They have a 93% local cure rate from the virus that attacks the liver.
"They just feel more energized. They have more energy," said Dr. Alam of the hundreds of patients he's helped find the path to a cure.
But across the country, 50% of those with Hep C haven't even been screened according to Dr. Alam. Of those who know they have it, 60% never show up to get care.
"We are now facing a second wave of new infections. It is the younger population. These are young kids in suburban areas who have injected drugs in the past. That is going to the future wave," said Dr. Alam.
Hep C is a virus infection that is transmitted through the blood, primarily through IV drug use.
With work still left to do, Kinzly will keep spreading the word that a cure is in Austin.
Those who are low income or have no insurance may qualify to get the medications for free. CommUnityCare Clinics operate throughout Austin including inside the ARCH homeless center.