When folks in New Mexico need a liver transplant, it marks the start of a long, difficult journey. You have to fight the odds just to qualify for one. You also have to be willing and able to afford going out of state for the surgery. All the while, the federal rules make it less likely that you’ll ever get one.
So what can be done so folks here don’t need a liver transplant in the first place?
One of the top reasons people in New Mexico need a liver transplant is because of Hepatitis C. The virus destroys the liver over time, causing cirrhosis and if it’s left untreated, it can turn into liver cancer.
Karla Thornton leads a Hep. C research team within Project ECHO at the University of New Mexico.
“It’s a huge public health problem in New Mexico,” Thornton said.
Hep. C is transmitted mainly through contact with blood. So folks who use intravenous drugs, for example, are at higher risk.
More than 45 thousand New Mexicans were infected with the disease in 2014. And the state estimates that more than two thousand of those folks will develop liver cancer.
“You can stop that process and you can also reverse some of the liver disease, so even if you already have cirrhosis, it’s really important to get treated,” Thornton said.
Hep. C is almost completely curable nowadays, and she said most insurers cover the treatment. Needle exchange programs have been found to prevent infections. There’s more than 30 locations where you can get clean needles across the state, including at most public health offices.
New Mexico has had the country’s highest rate of liver disease deaths for more than a decade. Hep. C is a big factor. Alcoholism is number one.
But Margo Hurlocker says quitting alcohol can be tough.
“People are ambivalent about change,” Hurlocker explained.
Hurlocker is an alcohol treatment researcher at UNM’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions. She specializes in a recovery method called motivational interviewing.
“It’s really just exploring why the client may want to change,” she said.
You meet with a doctor or counselor and discuss why you want to get sober. But they don’t tell you what to do. You get to identify how your life could improve if you changed your habits.
“It could be branching outside of the drinking to be like, ‘OK, what type of person do you want to be? What do you value? And how does this behavior fit or not fit into it?’” she explained.
Then there are things that the state can do to prevent cases of liver disease here.
“The number one thing would be to reduce alcohol consumption,” said Michael Landen.
He’s the head epidemiologist at the New Mexico Department of Health.
“The best way of doing that, according to the CDC, is to increase our alcohol tax,” Landen explained.
Raising taxes discourages people from buying alcohol.
And according to state recommendations, cutting down on the hours when people can shop for drinks would help too.
Rashad Mahmood and Lissa Knudsen did the data analysis, graphics and maps for this series, "Too Little, Too Late: Waiting For A Liver In N.M."
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.