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andi: executive director

THE FOUNDER'S STORY

Nearly 12 years ago, a single event changed Andi Thomas’ life forever.  A doctor that Andi visited for a diagnostic procedure recommended that she get tested for “hepatitis something” she recalls.  Weeks after the procedure and many voice messages later Andi was finally able to speak with the specialist on her lunch break to get her procedure results.

In the cafeteria with dozens of her co-workers nearby she huddled with the phone in the corner.  It was one of those good news/bad news phone calls. The doctor told Andi: “The good news is the your procedure went fine. The bad news is that you have hepatitis C.”  Andi asked him what this meant and whether she could infect her husband and children. Her doctor’s advice was simply...“just don’t bleed on your kids.”

Confused and angry at doctor’s cavalier response, Andi researched medical websites on her own and learned that the “hepatitis something” was indeed chronic hepatitis C, a serious viral infection that is the leading cause of liver disease, liver cancer and adult liver transplant in the U.S.  She also discovered that her situation was not unique.  Nearly every person she met who had Hepatitis C had a similar story to tell.

Even after consulting a liver specialist, Andi was unable to get any clear answers about what to expect. "It was incomprehensible to me that that I was carrying a potentially fatal virus for eighteen years and didn’t feel ill" she says.  “I got married, had children and built a life, all the while suffering from progressive liver disease.”

Hepatitis C is a stealth virus. It infects healthy people who have no idea that they are being attacked by something that is not usually detected routine blood work. Furthermore, the infection can linger for two or more decades without producing signs or symptoms, then suddenly cause a profound and sometimes life threatening illness. Andi estimates she was first infected in the late 1970’s either through intranasal drug use or when she was pricked with a needle as a medical assistant.  She was first diagnosed in 1996.

Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) is spread mostly from contact with infected blood, such as a receiving a blood transfusion before 1992 or contaminated clotting factor before 1987, kidney dialysis and through injecting drug use. HCV is rarely sexually transmitted, although sex with multiple partners or a history of sexually transmitted diseases can put people at risk for it.  The virus can enter the body through minor cuts or scrapes by razors, toothbrushes or on needles used for tattooing, body piercing or on materials used to snort drugs.

Today, approximately four to five million Americans – or one in every fifty people have been infected with this virus.  In contrast, about a million Americans are thought to have HIV.  Some four per cent of “baby-boomers” are believed to carry HCV; among adult black men, it's ten per cent. What is most disturbing is that chronic liver disease ranks among the top five leading causes of death among adults 45 to 64 years old, yet little has been done by the government to alert the public.  Since its discovery in 1989, it is estimated that only about a quarter of the cases have been diagnosed meaning that nearly three million Americans do not know that they are infected with HCV, or that they could be passing it on to others.

Luckily a simple blood test can determine if someone was exposed and a treatment is available for those infected.  A combination of drugs called pegylated interferon and ribavirin is the medication of choice and can result in a permanent remission in 40%-80% of the people who undergo treatment. Andi is one of those people who beat the odds and was cured of HCV in 2004.

Andi’s desire to help others when first diagnosed resulted her founding Hep-C ALERT in 1997 with the mission to raise awareness and concern of Hepatitis C. Through the years, Andi has emerged as a national spokesperson for the Hepatitis C cause and has appeared on ABC News Nightline with Forrest Sawyer and Healthy Bodies – Healthy Minds on public broadcasting and Discovery Health Channel. She’s been quoted in U.S. News and World Report, Cosmopolitan, Newsweek, and the Washington Post. 

Since 2001, Andi has dedicated herself to reaching out to the low-income minority residents in Miami who are least likely to be screened, educated and/or treated.  It became clear that more than just "hep-C" services were needed for this population. Andi has systematically expanded the number services offered so every person get free testing for hepatitis, HIV, STDs, free hepatitis A and B vaccination and more.

Hep-C ALERT/ALERT Health is located in North Miami has a staff of twelve. The agency provides more than five thousand people each year with free counseling and testing, education, support groups, toll-free hotline, and referrals. Andi is grateful for every day the doors are open.  The lifeblood of ALERT is the support and encouragement received from individuals, corporations and foundations. The heart and soul of ALERT is the amazing staff, a small group of people who are totally dedicated to helping others improve the health and quality of their lives. 

Andi says: “Who would have thought that a single phone call would have changed my life so dramatically? I’m truly blessed to be able to help others and hope that these two message comes out loud and clear: 

1) If you’re at risk – get tested.

2) Support good work.  Volunteer time or resources to improve awareness!

 
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