LOS ANGELES (AP) — An estimated one in four Skid Row residents is infected with hepatitis C, more than 10 times the rate of the general population, according to local researchers.
The study, published in the July-August issue of Public Health Reports, found that nearly half of those infected did not know they had the disease, which is spread by contact with contaminated blood, often by sharing hypodermic needles.
Of those who knew their diagnosis, only 3 percent had received treatment for it.
The section of downtown LA known as Skid Row houses the nation's densest concentration of homeless people. Nearly 1,000 people bed down on Skid Row's sidewalks nightly, and authorities say most suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Roughly another 3,000 reside in shelters or special housing in the area.
The study, by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, comes on the heels of last month's county health inspection that found the city of Los Angeles to be violating health codes for failing to clean Skid Row streets strewn with feces and hypodermic needles.
The study also comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control last month recommended testing of all baby boomers for hepatitis C because most people — 75 percent — do not know they have the chronic infection that attacks the liver and can lead to death if untreated.
Some public health officials have deemed hepatitis C a "silent epidemic" because people may not know they have it and the disease now kills more people than HIV/AIDS.
Skid Row medical workers said they have seen more cases of hepatitis C in recent years and have increased testing, as well as provide vaccinations for hepatitis A and B.
"We have seen more of it," said Mary Marfisee, medical director of UCLA School of Nursing Health Center at the Union Rescue Mission. "They're coming from the jails."
The problem is that the full battery of tests costs hundreds of dollars and treatment, which is rarely available in public health facilities, involves nine months of drugs and medical monitoring for side effects.
Marfisee said prisons should increase treatment efforts.
"One of the places we need to start is in the jails. It's easier to treat them there," she said.
Lillian Gelberg, the UCLA medical professor who led the study of 534 adults in 2003-04, said outreach campaigns for hepatitis C, along the lines of previous HIV/AIDS campaigns, are needed in homeless populations.
Researchers say indications are that infection rates are similar today as when the study was conducted.
If left untreated, the disease will result in escalating public health costs due to expensive hospitalization and liver transplants, she said.