By Carl Christopher
Standard Speaker, © 2006

December 16, 2006

Health investigators are hoping to interview more area residents in their inquiry into a possible outbreak of a rare blood disease among residents of Carbon, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties.

Dr. Paul Roda, a Hazleton hematologist who met for two hours Friday with a task force studying the disease, said approximately 30 people have been interviewed since the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATDSR) began the process earlier this month.

Roda urged anyone suffering from polycythemia vera (PV) to contact health officials and arrange an interview. Much of the focus has been on people living on or near Ben Titus Road and the Still Creek Reservoir between McAdoo and Tamaqua.

“We really won’t know if there is something going on without evaluating people who live or have lived in this area,” Roda said.

Health agencies have been contacting residents who Roda said “have been identified through a number of sources” to determine whether they have the disease.

When the Health Department announced the study last month, officials said only documented cases that have been reported to the state cancer registry will be interviewed. More information is available from the department at (717) 346-3283.

Roda said patients who have already been contacted but have not yet been interviewed, should get in touch with the agency. He said anyone wishing to arrange an interview can call Dr. Vince Seamon of the Centers for Disease Control at (401)-498-0595.

They also can contact Roda or their own hematologist, who can then get in touch with investigators.

Roda said PV is a chronic cancer of the blood-forming organs that is characterized by the overproduction of normal blood. “Patients may have it for 20 years or more,” he said. Treatment might involve medication or a phlebotomy, the removal of excess blood.

People suffering from the disease have a red blood count that is too high, but they may have no symptoms.

Some may have angina or neurological symptoms. In rare cases, they can have abdominal pain if the spleen becomes enlarged.

Roda said investigators are using a new tool that can recognize polycythemia vera.

“They hope to run a very specific blood test called a JAK II mutation assay,” Roda said. “It’s positive in over 90 percent of patients who have a high red count due to polycthemia vera.”

In some patients, high red counts might be caused by non-cancerous ailments. “There are other similar diseases including secondary polycythemia vera, which we see in smokers and are not cancers and wouldn’t be caused by chemical contamination,” he said.

Task force members will be in the area conducting interviews until the middle of next week.

Investigation into a possible outbreak started after three people living on Ben Titus Road were diagnosed with PV, which typically affects one in every 200,000 people.

Dr. Peter Baddick of West PennTownship later claimed there were 90 confirmed cases of the disease near the former McAdoo Associates Superfund site.

However, state health department officials told a Schuylkill County gathering in October that they have recorded only 82 cases in all of Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties.