‘Health care for people, not profit’: Berkeley Free Clinic fights hepatitis A outbreak among homeless population

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Amid the country’s biggest person-to-person outbreak of hepatitis A since the invention of the hepatitis vaccine in 1996, Berkeley Free Clinic is providing free hepatitis testing, education and vaccination to those in need.

Berkeley Free Clinic, located at 2339 Durant Ave., is a collective of different sections of health services that provides accessible client-centered aid and information to the community, according to its website. Its motto is “health care for people, not profit.”

According to the California Department of Public Health, there have been 700 cases of hepatitis A, 458 hospitalizations and 21 deaths in California as of February 2018.

Volunteer Noorin Damji assists the clinic with hepatitis testing, education and vaccination, or Hep-TEV, in which the volunteers encourage people to get vaccinated. Hep-TEV has been running for 10 years.

To mobilize against California’s current hepatitis outbreak, the Hep-TEV team has been working with Berkeley’s health department to bring hepatitis A vaccinations to different parts of the community — homeless encampments, needle exchanges and shelters. They recently ran through 200 doses of the hepatitis A vaccine in less than three months, according to Damji.

“Living on the streets impacts the way people experience health and wellness,” Damji said. “It’s definitely disproportionately impacting people who experience homelessness.”

Damji added that the clinic seeks to prioritize people who are experiencing homelessness and others who are at a higher risk of hepatitis, such as sex workers and people who inject drugs.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out how to be more out (in the community) than within the clinic,” Damji said. “(The) clinic is home base to return to and work out of while we’re out in the community and meeting people where they’re at.”

Damji said volunteers are trying to maintain a consistent presence in communities where hepatitis is most prevalent so that when people affected with the disease are ready to be vaccinated, they know that the volunteers are there.

“Volunteers … are specialized to serve different folks and different circumstances,” said Darius Ramirez, member of the information resource collective at Berkeley Free Clinic. “(The goal is to) serve the community that comes in as best as we can.”

On Saturdays, the Hep-TEV team sees two groups of people: noncisgender men, a category that includes women as well as transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and all clients from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. On Sundays, the team treats cisgender men from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

“We will screen anyone (and) always want to talk to people about what this thing is — what they should know about it, how they can protect themselves,” Damji said. ”We … seek to empower … people who have less of a voice, less of a power and are more stigmatized.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.