ALTOONA, BLAIR COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — A local specialist says a virus that can cause cancer and liver failure is on the increase in our region.

Hepatitis C is the leading cause for liver transplant and liver cancer. It can be a silent illness, so you can end up with severe liver damage or infect someone else, before you even know you have it.
During this Hepatitis Awareness Month, Blair Gastro is focusing on hep C, hoping to get more people tested and treated. Medications can cure the virus within two to three months, but most people who are infected aren’t getting them.

“In rural Pennsylvania, the rate of hepatitis has tripled in the last three years, we want to get treatment earlier to get people to cure earlier,” says Dr. Ralph McKibbin.

According to the gastroenterologist, 70 percent of  the new cases are people under the age of 35, infected as a result  of IV drug use and needle sharing.

“If you look at the map of Pennsylvania, much of the risk is in southwest Pa. and the Appalachian tip where we have the highest overdose rates and the highest infection rates,” he explains.

Hep c medication  was extremely expensive when it first came out, but Dr. McKibbin says prices have dropped and patients no longer have to have advanced scarring and liver disease, before they can be treated.

Dr McKibbin says since there aren’t enough specialists to treat hep c, he’s now taking part in a effort to partner with primary care physicians in order to increase the number of patients who can be helped.