A grant affecting six counties helps let carriers know they have the infectious disease.
It's a disease that many people have, but few may realize.
Starting this month, the Pinellas County Health Department is offering free screenings for hepatitis C, a liver disease that can kill or debilitate if it's not caught early enough.
Pinellas is one of six Florida counties awarded part of a $2.5-million state grant to figure out how best to alert those who unknowingly carry hepatitis C, which often lurks quietly for 20 years before producing symptoms. The other counties are Broward, Collier, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Polk.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.8 percent of the population has hepatitis C. About 20 percent of them will develop chronic liver disease, cirrhosis or liver cancer.
Often, even people who know they have hepatitis C "aren't aware that they're infectious, and they have to take certain precautions in order not to spread it to others," said Dr. Julia Gill, the department's hepatitis program manager. "A lot of people aren't aware there's a treatment for it."
Hepatitis C was discovered in 1989 and the screening of donated blood for it began in 1990. A better test was developed in 1992.
Gill said you should be screened if you had a blood transfusion before 1992; have ever had an organ transplant; have undergone long-term hemodialysis; or ever have shared needles while using intravenous drugs, such as heroin.
Symptoms include fatigue, abdominal pain, jaundice and fever.
Screening involves answering questions to determine whether you fall into one of the risk groups, and then taking a hepatitis C test. The tests are sent to an out-of-town lab. Results take two weeks.
Hepatitis C screenings will be offered at the Pinellas County Health Department's five offices:
+ Tarpon Springs Health Center, 301 S Disston Ave., Fridays, 1 to 4 p.m.
+ Largo Health Center, 12320 130th Ave N., Mondays, 1 to 4 p.m.
+ St. Petersburg Health Center, 500 Seventh Ave. S, Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
+ Clearwater Health Center, 310 N Myrtle Ave., Wednesdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
+ Pinellas Park Health Center, 6350 76th Ave. N., Thursday, 8 a.m. to noon.
For information, call the county's hepatitis program at 824-6932.