Life In “Hepatitisville” – Homeless, Addicts Erode Quality of Life

wcvb.com | WORCESTER, Mass. — This industrial city in central Massachusetts has had many nicknames through the years, including “the Heart of the Commonwealth” and “Wormtown.”

Among them was this less-known medical moniker: “Hepatitisville.”

Worcester has endured several outbreaks of the liver-battering disease, including one that sidelined 90 members of a college football team in 1969.

Given its history and its size, it wasn’t surprising Worcester was hard hit when recent hepatitis A outbreaks in the state started sickening – and killing – homeless people and illicit drug users …

Worcester is in the midst of an urban renewal. But for many decades it was a decaying mill town where hepatitis was relatively ordinary, as symptomless kids frequently spread it around to friends.

“It was a common summer infection,” said Dr. Leonard Morse, a retired physician who led the city’s health department for decades. Hepatitis Kills 5; State Residents Age 2-81 Warned

Worcester drew national headlines in 1969, when a hepatitis A outbreak traced to a contaminated faucet sickened more than 90 members of the Holy Cross College football team. The squad had to cancel most of its season.

Another lowlight occurred in the mid-1980s, when a hepatitis B outbreak among drug abusers and their sex partners was accompanied by a very unusual spike in simultaneous infections with hepatitis D. That outbreak sickened at least 135 and killed 11.

“We were the hepatitis D capital of the United States,” said Dr. Erik Garcia, a Worcester physician who’s been treating homeless people since 1994 …

When a hepatitis A outbreak was reported in the Boston area last spring, Worcester’s health officials geared up.

They also knew they had to persuade homeless people and drug users to get vaccinations. With resources limited, they turned to an array of local organizations to help, including the quality of life team.

“They know us. We’ve been able to build a little bit of trust with them,” said team member Mike Girardi, a cop. “It’s not like a policeman in uniform that they’ve never seen before is showing up to their tent with a needle.”

Most shots were given at the more than 50 clinics held at homeless shelters, drug rehab centers, and soup kitchens. Read more.