Prevalence of Hepatitis C Virus Infection in a Sample of Homeless Veterans

Rani A. Desai, Robert A. Rosenheck and Vincent Agnello

July 2003

This study measures the prevalence of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) infection in a sample of homeless veterans treated in a Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans (DCHV) program in Massachusetts. The study also examines risk factors and correlates for HCV infection, including substance abuse and service in Vietnam. Patients admitted to the DCHV program over a 5-year period (n=418) were systematically tested for HCV infection. Blood test data were merged with standardized data collection forms to assess socio-demographic characteristics, military history, and medical and psychiatric history. The overall prevalence rate of HCV infection was 44.02%, a rate more than ten times higher than the national rate for men age 20–59 and more than twice as high as other VA patient samples. Adjusting for age, significant risk factors in this sample included a history of substance abuse (OR=6.86, p<0.0001) and service during the Vietnam era (OR=4.66, p=0.01). Comparisons of the tested sample with other homeless veterans treated in 34 similar programs nationally indicated that this sample did not significantly differ from other treated homeless veterans with respect to demographics or HCV risk factors. Results show a high prevalence of HCV infection in this population that is not likely to be geographically unique, and may indicate particularly high risk for homeless men. Substance abuse is the most important risk factor, and researchers hypothesize that the effect of Vietnam-era service is a proxy for unreported drug use. The study recommends an increase in screening and education for all homeless populations, particularly those with a history of injection drug use. Public systems of care, including the VA, should expect increasing costs of care related to HCV infection as prevalent cases develop serious medical sequelae of HCV infection.

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