New Mexico’s Project ECHO takes on Silent Killer

Baby boomers – those born in the generation following the end of World War II – may be unknowingly paying a heavy health price as a result of growing up in the age of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.

That price is coming for many in the form of Hepatitis C, a disease that can lay dormant in a person for decades then cause potentially fatal liver diseases like cirrhosis and cancer. Detected early enough, it is curable – but many of those who have it don’t find that out until it’s too late.

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 undergo a simple blood test for the disease.

According to federal officials, an estimated 5 million people born over that span are unknowingly carrying the disease. The trouble, however, is making sure that the word gets out, and the testing happens.

In New Mexico, a new program is helping extend that message – and testing – into the rural parts of the state where it has never existed before.

Dr. Karla Thornton, the associate director at Project ECHO, an endeavor of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, outlined the program at the Colorado Health Symposium in Keystone last fall. The goal was simple – to use technology to extend treatment of chronic, common and complex diseases in rural areas of the state, and to develop measurable data to confirm that it was improving health.

Thornton said Hepatitis C was the perfect illness to tackle because it can be cured.

“When you get rid of this virus, it’s gone forever,” Thornton said during a presentation at the symposium, sponsored by the Colorado Health Foundation. She reported that New Mexico statistics show that Project ECHO's preventative testing and treatment approach is working.

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