Sun Community News
May 28, 2018
By Pete Demola
PLATTSBURGH | Danny Kaifetz has worked tirelessly for years to encourage his fellow veterans to receive hepatitis C testing, laboring to break through decades of hurdles, from the federal bureaucracy to veteran apathy — even his own battle with the disease.
Hepatitis C poses a particularly insidious threat for military personnel.
While no prevalence data exists for Vietnam era veterans like Kaifetz, the incidence rate is about twice as high in military personnel than in the general public.
The U.S. military once used pneumatic jet gun devices used to vaccinate GIs as an exercise in modern efficiency.
Originally designed for cattle, soldiers received high pressure blasts of an 18-drug cocktail before being shipped off to combat zones. But flinching resulted in ripped skin, which led to blood spraying onto the gun where it mixed with fluids from others.
Decades later, a growing body of evidence suggests the now-banned devices acted as a vessel to transport hepatitis C, exposing a generation of recruits to what Kaifetz calls “collateral damage which so many still carry today.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates over 4 million Americans are estimated to have the disease.
Kaifetz, a Marine who himself is a survivor, said the exact rate of infection among Vietnam vets remains unknown, but is expected to be notably higher than the current rate for non-military personnel.
Hepatitis C is a silent killer, with symptoms going unnoticed for decades, often to the extent that a liver transplant is necessary.
Many vets have soured on the VA for years and are generally distrusting of government and are at risk.
As such, they tend not receive care through government clinics, Kaifetz said.
The disease is easily diagnosed, and caught early, it’s curable through a regimen of antiviral drugs.
But without regular doctor visits, veterans are putting themselves at risk, particularly those outside of the VA network, about 4 of 5 of the overall 2.5 million U.S. veterans who served between 1964-75.
Since 2015, Kaifetz, who serves as the medical officer for American Legion Post 1619 in Morrisonville, has spearheaded efforts to get veterans tested, with his post the first in the U.S. to offer free testing.
The idea has steadily gained traction with the VA, who dispatched high-level brass to testing events in the Plattsburgh area to monitor the proceedings.
Kaifetz went to Capitol Hill last fall to lobby lawmakers to introduce a bill requiring all veterans get the chance to be tested, followed up and treated through the VA if they had no other way to receive care.
Those efforts have paid off:
Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro) and Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the Vietnam Era Veterans Hepatitis C Testing Enhancement Act last week.
The bill would address a number of action items Kaifetz has been working towards for years and propel them to an audience past the North Country, including establishing a pilot program to screen and test at least 350,000 veterans at what are known as Veterans Integrated Service Networks.
The bill will also allow for the collection of prevalence data for Vietnam era veterans; eliminate administrative barriers to testing and “provide important and timely information on the success of the program to identify subsequent opportunities to expand the program nationally and or to other veteran cohorts that could benefit from outreach testing.”
Kaifetz called the study an “important step in honoring the commitment and taking care of those served during the Vietnam era.”
“Moreover, it is imperative that we provide an effective rapid testing program for all Vietnam Era veterans and not just among VA enrollees,” Kaifetz said in a statement.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has not confirmed a direct link between the guns and the disease, and the bill’s co-sponsors acknowledge hepatitis C wasn’t well understood in the 1970s.
“At the time of the Vietnam War, HCV had not yet been identified and effectively understood along with proper prevention and infection control opportunities,” Ryan said in a statement.
But the agency has allocated more funds to combat the issue in recent years, including deep investments in hepatitis C drugs.
Stefanik said the bill was a matter of “common sense.”
“As the proud representative of more veterans than any Congressional district in New York State, I will continue to deliver results in Congress to repay the debt we owe those who have served,” Stefanik said in a statement.
Ryan said it is “critical that the VA and other veteran service organizations be empowered to work at the community level to assess the health needs of these brave men and women.
“They answered the call to service, and we owe it to them to help now.”
Clinic and campaigns spearheaded by American Legion Post 1619 have helped at least 1,200 vets, including many outside of VA care, get tested as of last October.
Kaifetz, who has said he wanted to replicate that model nationwide, hopes the disease can be eradicated among vets within a few years.
“I want to make sure others get help before it is too late,” Kaifetz told The Sun last October. “They have all the tools, money and support they need to eradicate this from the veteran population.”