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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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MPFFU on Hepatitis C

By Paul Hufnagel

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that attaches to the liver and can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, liver cancer and death. The disease is four times more prevalent than the HIV virus. Nearly four million Americans are infected with hepatitis C. Worse yet, medical experts have dubbed the disease a “silent epidemic,” because seventy-five percent of people infected with hepatitis C have no symptoms and therefore do not know they are infected.

Firefighters providing emergency medical services are at a higher risk of contracting hepatitis C. The Philadelphia fire department recently reported that of the 2,118 firefighters screened last year, 132 have tested positive for hepatitis C. A rate three times the incidence of the disease among the general population. Reportedly, San Francisco, Atlanta, Miami-Dade County, and Hawaii firefighters are also pushing for testing.


It is only in the past fifteen years or so that universal precautions, i.e., gloves, masks, and safer needles have been used on a regular basis in the emergency medical field. Over the past thirty years, many firefighters/emergency health-care workers have been unknowingly exposed to hepatitis C while performing their jobs. Until recently, there has been no effort to educate emergency medical personnel and the public about the dangers of hepatitis C and how to be tested for it.

While symptoms are rare and hard to define—extreme tiredness, nausea, and stomach pain are the most common—testing is available to those who think they may be at risk. The hepatitis C blood test is an additional test, however, as the disease would not be spotted through routine blood work. Early detection is important because there are more treatment options available and the likelihood of treatment success is greater. Those infected with hepatitis C can also make lifestyle changes to help protect the liver from the disease.

Firefighters risk of exposure is high. Hepatitis B & C and HIV have been reported in rural and urban areas in every state and territory. No population group is free of these infections. Every year, about one in 25 firefighters reports an exposure to a blood-borne disease. Most exposures do not transmit infection, but enough do.

At the recent MPFFU biennial convention, delegates adopted Resolution #35, which addresses firefighters and Hepatitis C. The resolution calls for MPFFU to provide its members with: Education and training to increase their awareness of the dangers of hepatitis C in the workplace, investigate the feasibility of a statewide program for testing firefighters, and introduce legislation to include infectious disease presumption law covering firefighters who are exposed to hepatitis C and other job-related infectious diseases.


Several months ago, in an effort to educate and protect our members, MPFFU joined the Hepatitis C coalition of Michigan. The goals of this coalition are to provide education and awareness to the general public and to develop a grassroots approach to educating Michigan’s communities at risk for hepatitis C. We will be working with this organization and others to educate our members about the dangers of contracting hepatitis on the job.

MPFFU also will be working with the IAFF to provide the latest information on training, safety standards, and proper procedures to follow so that firefighters can protect themselves from exposures to infectious diseases. Education and training are the key components to preventing hepatitis C infections and the devastating impact it can have on firefighters and their families.

For many years hepatitis C has remained a “silent epidemic” that poses a serious threat to firefighters. Many of our members, like those in Philadelphia, may suffer a higher rate of infection than the general population. Most people who get hepatitis C have no recognizable signs or symptoms. The disease can remain undetected for many years before symptoms develop. Early detection is important because there are more treatment options available and the likelihood of treatment success is greater. A testing program will provide the opportunity for firefighters to be tested and treated to protect them and their families. We will work on developing hepatitis C testing program that will be available to local unions and their members.

Firefighters risk their lives every day providing rescue and emergency medical services throughout Michigan and are entitled to protection for job-related illness and injuries. MPFFU will continue its efforts to pass legislation that provides an infectious disease presumption for firefighters in the workers compensation system. You will be hearing more from us on hepatitis C in the coming months.