Five students watch and jot notes as instructor, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist Maureen Hoversen strategically places needles — barely the width of a hair — into the back of a patient with hepatitis C.

"It is an area I’d like to be proficient in because it is so prevalent in our society," student Sarah Firmage said about hepatitis C, the virus spread through blood-to-blood contact that can destroy a person’s liver. "We’re bound to see it in the clinics."

Firmage and her classmates are in their third week of learning the ancient Eastern approach to treating hepatitis C through acupuncture and herbs.

While the method dates back hundreds of years, teaching acupuncture specifically for hepatitis C is new for Five Branches Institutes, the Santa Cruz college of traditional Chinese medicine.

Much like other acupuncture treatments, the treatment of hepatitis C involves hundreds of points — called meridians — all over the body that send energy to the liver when triggered by the prick of tiny needles inserted into the skin, practitioners say

Twenty to 30 needles are used in a typical acupuncture session.

"There’s no real evidence that the herbs and acupuncture get rid of hepatitis C," Hoversen said. "That’s not the goal. The goal is to reduce symptoms."

Hepatitis C, commonly contracted through shared needles of intravenous drug users, tattoo needles and blood transfusions done before 1992, is known as a "silent disease."

Symptoms such as chronic fatigue, body aches and nausea often lie dormant for years before surfacing.

Traditional medical treatment of hepatitis C involves the use of two highly potent pharmaceuticals, interferon and ribavirin. Each have side effects that can leave a patient with excruciating headaches, nausea, insomnia and deep depression.

"This can make the Western treatment more tolerable," Hoversen said of acupuncture and herbs.

Hoversen and her colleagues at Five Branches say acupuncture and Chinese herbs alleviate many of those side effects, allowing patients to feel well enough to regain their quality of life.

After each acupuncture treatment, which lasts up to 30 minutes, patient Lori Robyn says she’s relaxed, with less pain and nausea.

Robyn, 49, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C 25 years ago and now suffers from cirrhosis, said acupuncture and herbs are a perfect way to offset the harsh effects of her standard medical treatment of interferon and ribavirin, which are taken through injections and pills.

"Nothing took these headaches away" before starting acupon, Robyn said, "It doesn’t hurt. It’s almost a calming sensation for me."

The frequency of acupuncture appointments, Hoversen said, depends on the severity of the individual case. She sees some patients two times a week, while others need it once a month.

About 40 percent of Hoversen’s patients have hepatitis C.

An estimated 8,000 Santa Cruz County residents are infected with the virus, yet only 1,300 have been reported, according to the county Health Department.

Five Branches Institute, which opened in 1984, offers a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine that takes about four years to complete.

Contact Shanna McCord at smccord@santacruzsentinel.com.

first organizers.

Of course, it seemed natural to support the very group of kids who would be most likely to participate in the race later on — those running on the track and field or cross country teams.

The first donation — $500 each — initially went to Soquel High and Cabrillo College, two school that had alumni or faculty on the organizing committee. As the Wharf to Wharf made more money, it added schools and upped the donations.

Now it gives a set $40,000 to the county’s high school running programs with the possibility of a few thousand more going to other teams that help out with the race. It divvies up the remainder of its profits among other county organizations that promote running, usually setting a large chunk aside for special projects like the track at Aptos.

Last year, according to the race’s Web site, the Wharf to Wharf distributed $193,545.

Some people, like Ryan, believe that the race’s longtime support of running programs has helped Santa Cruz County earn its label as a running hotbed, though a stash of talented athletes hasn’t hurt either.

"I don’t think the running that we’re known for, especially the distance running, would exist," he said. "Everything feeds on everything, and Wharf to Wharf is the key in the middle.

"If other programs had a Wharf to Wharf, we wouldn’t be talking about budget cuts."

But not everyone sees the reliance on the Wharf to Wharf as a good thing, especially not the race’s current organizer, Kirby Nicol.

"Unfortunately, the idea was we wanted to help the schools and supplement the sports program," said Nicol. "But when we started to give money, districts decided to discontinue their money so that most of (the running programs’) budgets come from us.

"It’s kind of sad but true. That wasn’t our intent, but we’re here to make sure that the object of our interest — the sports programs — are able to continue on even though everybody else is out of money."

That’s news that should put a little more bounce into area runners’ step, and a little less of one in Ryan’s checkbook.

Contact Julie Jag at jjag@santa-cruz.com.