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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Island man blazes
trail for hepatitis C
screening program
for fire departments

By Helen Altonn


A Honolulu firefighter's experience has led to one of the first fire department screening programs in the nation for the potentially fatal disease, hepatitis C.

Charles "Greg" Matney, 55, of Haleiwa has cirrhosis and is being evaluated at St. Francis Medical Center for the liver transplant list.

He believes he was infected with hepatitis C, a virus causing inflammation of the liver, sometime during his 24 years as a firefighter.

When he first joined the department, he was stationed in the Sunset Beach-Kahuku area, he said. "We had plenty of car wrecks. The ambulance service was part time at best and we would have to deal with a lot of blood-spill trauma things."

Emergency response workers are at high risk because of exposure to blood at accident scenes, said Angie Coste, research nurse in St. Francis Medical Center's Liver Center.

She said the center is particularly concerned about firefighters who were working before protective equipment was widely used.

Even now, Matney said, he feels the latex gloves are too fragile.

Intravenous drug usage, tattooing, blood transfusions before 1992 and organ transplants before 1992 are also possible sources of hepatitis C, said Dr. Naoky Tsai, medical director of the center.

Unlike hepatitis A and B viruses, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Tsai and Coste are assisting Matney with a program he initiated to inform all 1,130 people in the Fire Department and retirees about the virus and encourage them to be tested.

"Special notice went out from the fire chief informing all firefighters in the department education classes are mandatory," Matney said. "But testing by federal law is voluntary."

Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii is doing free testing for firefighters at all its sites, he said.

Coste said about 120 have been screened thus far. She said Matney made it a goal to inform and promote testing of firefighters and educated himself as a patient.

Tsai helped him develop educational material and obtain funding, Matney said. "He is a major player in hepatitis C treatment for people and research a major player in the United States."

He said without Tsai's support and "a very empathetic fire chief, I would still be beating my head against the wall because of budgetary constraints."

Matney said his health "is getting worse all the time" but he wants to complete classes at all the fire stations. He's done about one-fifth of them and had "excellent reception," he said.

He hopes when finished to retire early through the city's leave-donation program, saying he needs about a year of donations.

He got some help Thursday to speed things up when firefighter Mike Kaneshiro was assigned to work with him. Both are in the training and research bureau of the department's medical branch.

"Mike came up positive on the hepatitis screening for firefighters so he has a vested interest in the program also and he doesn't know how he got it," Matney said.

Matney said he was diagnosed in 1981 with the disease but "it was just called non-A, non-B hepatitis. They knew it had something to do with the liver, but there were no therapies for it."

He said he continued his normal activities until becoming sick again in 1994 with fatigue, muscle aches, abdominal pain and other symptoms.

The disease by then was known as hepatitis C and there were several therapies. He was given a treatment for six months involving injections three times a week.

Matney said his doctor told him he'd have a better chance of getting a transplant on the mainland because of few liver donations here. He got on a list with a transplant team in Boston, but a doctor there recently told there were 320 people on the list and he'd have a better chance of getting a getting a liver here, he said.

Donna Pacheco, St. Francis heart and liver transplant coordinator, said 25 are waiting for livers now and others, including Matney, are being evaluated.

Coste said if firefighters have a higher rate of hepatitis C, the Liver Center wants to seek funding to ensure that they get pre-employment and annual physicals "so there will be no doubt if they were exposed on the job or not ... These guys shouldn't have to prove it."

Matney said he gave a presentation in Washington two weeks ago at an event sponsored by Hepatitis Foundation International for hepatitis C patients, researchers and doctors. "I was besieged with questions the whole four days I was there by people wanting to know more about what we've done here in Hawaii," he said. "They want to know how they can go home to their small towns and get a program like this in place."

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