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Veterans Groups Fight Stigma Associated With Hepatitis C

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it will treat anyone in its health care system who has hepatitis C. That's a potentially deadly liver disease. The decision to treat it comes amid a mystery about how veterans contracted it. Here's North Country Public Radio's Zach Hirsch.

ZACH HIRSCH, BYLINE: It's happy hour at American Legion Post 1619 in Morrisonville, N.Y. People are eating and drinking at the bar. And downstairs, nurses from the local hospital have turned the basement into a clinic. They're doing free anonymous testing for hepatitis C.

MIKE ROCK: And it's just like a diabetes test - one drop of blood - bingo - 20 minutes. You're on your way.

HIRSCH: Mike Rock is the post's commander. He's been trying to spread the word that hepatitis C is prevalent among Vietnam veterans. According to the VA, injectable drug use was one of the most common sources, but Rock blames a device called the jet injector gun. From the '60s all the way up to 1997, the military used it to give soldiers multiple vaccines in one shot. During the Vietnam War, veterans groups say, it was common practice to inoculate hundreds of soldiers with the same gun.

DANNY KAIFETZ: The air pressure - 150 pounds of air pressure forced this tiny stream of vaporized liquid and air through your skin without the use of a needle.

HIRSCH: That's Danny Kaifetz. He's medical information officer with American Legion post, and he has hep C himself.

KAIFETZ: The problem is it hurt like hell, and everybody flinched when you got that shot.

HIRSCH: He says when soldiers flinched, their skin broke and bled, and the gun became contaminated.

KAIFETZ: So you had an unsterilized gun in untrained hands pulling blood out of one person and giving it to another.

HIRSCH: There's been a huge debate about this for years. Veterans that are advocates and some doctors say the gun likely transmitted hepatitis C. The Defense Department and the VA reject that idea. Officials sent statements saying there's no scientific evidence.

But the VA does say a link between the jet injector gun and the disease is plausible. It's a huge deal for Kaifetz and the thousands of veterans believed to have hep C. It means they could be sick because of a military practice, not from something taboo like intravenous drugs.

KAIFETZ: The jet gun washed away the stigma of even getting tested.

HIRSCH: Kaifetz was in the Marine Corps in the '70s. He found out he had hep C in 2011, and he waited years before he told anyone he was sick. Then in December, his American Legion post was remembering veterans who died from hep C.

KAIFETZ: And that's when I came forward and said I'm going to try to help others from going through this dark uncertainty because it's very hard on you psychologically.

HIRSCH: Kaifetz now has a perception that's almost guaranteed to cure hep C. He wants other vets to know that if they're sick, they can get the cure too. And he said it's OK to be sick with hep C. He says his awareness campaign has a carte blanche kind of message - get tested if you served during the Vietnam War, especially if you remember getting injected with the inoculator gun. He says that focus on the jet gun encourages a lot of people to come forward.

KAIFETZ: And now you have veterans telling me - I never had a tattoo. I never injected any drugs. I don't know where I got this from. I have people calling me saying until you explained that jet gun, I never knew how I got hep C.

HIRSCH: Vets can get tested for hep C at any VA doctor's office. But Kaifetz hopes running clinics at Legion posts will reach people who may not be comfortable going to the doctor to request a test. For NPR News, I'm Zach Hirsch in Plattsburgh, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.