When Jerrit Reed's mother was first diagnosed with hepatitis C, he didn't know what that meant until she told him. Later, as treatments became expensive, he learned how serious her disease was.
"I had no idea what this was when she told me," said Jerrit, a sophomore at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax. Jerrit's mother died from hepatitis C in August 2002. "Ignorance, you've got to get rid of that."
Jerrit was one of over 100 students from Robinson who went to Capitol Hill on Thursday, Dec. 4, to lobby Congress on hepatitis C research and education.
The students were pushing for two bills in particular, S. 1143, The Hepatitis C Epidemic Control and Prevention Act, and H.R. 3539, The Wilson-Towns Hepatitis C Epidemic Control and Prevention Act. Both bills would appropriate $90 million toward research and education of the mysterious virus.
"A lot of congressmen don't know about this," said Robinson senior Hope Hudock of Fairfax.
An estimated 3.9 million individuals in the United States have been infected with the hepatitis C virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. By conservative estimates, another 35,000 individuals acquire the virus every year without knowing it.
The virus attacks the liver and the immune system, making the victim vulnerable to other infections. No cure or vaccine exists for the blood-borne virus, which can live for up to 14 days outside the body.
Students with Robinson's marketing club DECA pursued the cause because one DECA member, junior Erika Stein of Clifton, has a parent with the virus.
"We're really concerned about how it's affecting our community," said Erika, who was responsible for rallying DECA to make hepatitis C their public relations campaign for the year. Past campaigns by DECA have included coordinating a Social Security reform town hall meeting at George Mason University, lobbying for passage of the Dirty Diamond Bill with Amnesty International, and lobbying for the Ricky Ray Hemophilia Relief Fund Act.
On learning about the disease, students discovered that nearly half of all HIV patients die from hepatitis C, not AIDS. What's worse, they learned that because the virus can live outside of the body for several days, it can be spread through instruments used for manicures, pedicures, body piercings and tattoos. The virus is spread through blood-to-blood contact, and disinfectant agents such as alcohol and bleach cannot destroy it.
"A lot of people are misinformed and think they have been vaccinated," said senior Gabriela Eljaiek of Fairfax Station, who, with Erika, was one of the campaign's project directors. "Half the people that they estimate have hepatitis C don't know about it."
As a result, the DECA students not only planned to lobby Capitol Hill but also planned to educate the local community, by providing information on the Internet, testing local businesses to see if they practice safe health procedures, and addressing the Fairfax County School Board in January to include information about hepatitis C in health curriculums.
"We can really make a difference," said junior Nick Tatalovich of Clifton right before the group set out to lobby Congress.
"I really don't want to see anything happen to him because of this virus," said Erika of her father.