HEPATITIS C Is a Hidden Menace: AIDS has been the Bigger Story, But it shouldn’t Be – Sunday, July 22, 2001 – Published in The Concord Monitor
It is estimated that 4 million Americans have been infected. This is four times more people than have been infected by HIV.
Before I met Ira, I did not know about Hepatitis C. Ira came to me for legal representation after he was denied Social Security Disability benefits. He had been diagnosed with chronic Hepatitis C in 1997.
Ira initially went to the doctor with complaints of fatigue and dizziness. He did not feel well and was no longer able to work at his job as a landscaper. After lab tests and a liver biopsy, his doctors recommended treatment with Interferon, a highly toxic medicine.
The treatment was rugged. Even though Ira was young and strong, he experience profound fatigue and incapacitating headaches. He quickly lost 30 pounds. He said it was like he had a flue that never went away. He described many days in which he lay exhausted on his couch holding a pillow over his head to stem the headaches. It was too much effort to do dishes or walk the dog.
In spite of how lousy the medicine made him feel, it was Ira’s only hope. Fortunately, the Interferon has helped Ira function better. After 18 months of total disability, he is still struggling with fatigue but is back to work.
Ira is not alone in battling Hepatitis C. It is estimated that 4 million Americans have been infected. This is four times more people than have been infected by HIV. Yet AIDS has been a far bigger story.
If you were a science fiction writer dreaming up spooky plots, you would be hard put to come up with a more sinister virus and epidemic. Imagine a virus that infects you without any sign or symptom. Then imagine that you may not even be aware you have been attacked for 10 years until after your liver has been severely damaged.
Doctors do not know why a person can be infected and have no symptoms while the virus destroys his or her liver. That is why Hepatitis C has been widely described as both a clandestine and insidious virus. It spreads under the radar.
It is believed that only one-quarter of all cases in the United States have been diagnosed. that means 3 million Americans do not know they have been infected with the virus or that they could be passing it on to others even though blood tests could be done to determine the infection.
There is not a lot medically known about Hepatitis C. Data is scant, and the ability to predict the virus’s effect on a patient is poor. Some people with the infection escape entirely. Others develop irreversible liver disease. About 20 percent of Hepatitis C patients progress to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer or both.
Hepatitis C is spread when blood or body fluids from an infected person enter the body of a person who is not infected. The most common route of transmission has been injection-drug use.
Sharing contaminated needles and syringes increases the chance of infection dramatically. Body piercing and tattooing are another possible route of transmission. You can be infected if the tattoo artist’s tools have someone else’s blood on them or if the artist or piercer does not follow good health practices such as washing hands and using disposable gloves. Ira has multiple tattoos. His doctor believed that was the source of his infection.
Hepatitis C can also be spread by sex, but this is rare. There is no evidence that the virus is spread by kissing, hugging, sneezing or drinking from an infected person’s cup. It is wise not to share personal care items that might have blood on them like razors or toothbrushes.
Once the disease advances to cirrhosis, the symptoms are horrible. When the liver is severely damaged, its ability to clean blood of toxins and clot properly is compromised. Death can result from uncontrolled bleeding.
At present, no vaccine exists to prevent Hepatitis C, and it is unlikely there will be one soon. Due to the shadowy nature of the disease, no powerful lobby has stepped forward to advocate for more research money or better public education. In 1997, The National Institute of Health spent $1.5 billion on AIDS research. At the same time, $25 million dollars was spent on Hepatitis C research.
Hepatitis C is not a far-off medical problem about people in some distant ghetto. It is a New Hampshire story. Ira is from the Upper Valley. An informal poll I did of New Hampshire Legal Assistance paralegals and lawyers revealed that we are representing at least 10 disability clients around the state with this diagnosis.
We ignore this epidemic at our peril. Without better efforts to contain Hepatitis C, its death rate will surpass that of AIDS.