Hepatitis C is the most common blood borne virus in the U.S. It kills more people every year than HIV does. Hep C replicates a trillion times a day, quietly attacking the liver, and other organs. Often there are no symptoms until it is too late.
Approximately three million people in the U.S. are chronically infected with hep C. Baby boomers born in the years 1945–1965, account for approximately 75% of all Hep C infections. The majority of people who are infected do not know they have it. Hep C raises the risk of death from other diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer, prematurely shaving an average of 15 to 20 years off the lives of its victims.
However, hepatitis C isn’t merely a baby boomer problem. Hepatitis C infection is increasing among young people at alarming rates across the country. Between drug use, tattoos, piercings, and vampire play, teens and young adults have plenty of opportunity to contract hepatitis C. Prescription painkillers are the biggest culprits, as young people in the suburbs and rural parts of the U.S. are discovering what used to be more of an urban problem.
Our society is quite brutal in its opinions about drug users and people with hepatitis C. I know this first-hand. In 1988, I contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion. Despite the fact that hepatitis C is not passed casually, people stepped away from me when they learned I had this virus. They were quick to judge me for being a drug user. I never felt the need to assert that I was not one, because no one should be condemned for any reason. Drug users are people who may need help.
It is an awful disease. I was a nursing student the first time I saw someone die from hepatitis C. I was assigned to a thirty-five year old woman with end-stage liver disease, hastened by alcohol abuse. She was alert, kind-hearted and funny. She was also a mother. Days later, she was dead. Since then, I’ve known so many people who have died from this disease that I’ve lost count.
The great irony is that hepatitis C is preventable and curable, and many of these deaths are avoidable. The majority of people with hepatitis C can be cured with medication, usually taken for 12 weeks, sometimes less. The side effects are mild. I am now cured.
I would not have been cured if I didn’t know that I had hepatitis C. Knowing is the most important part, because then you can do something about it. If you were born from 1945-1965, ask your doctor for a hepatitis C test. If you suspect that your teenager or adult children have been exposed, talk to them about being tested.
Better yet, talk to your kids about staying safe before they are at risk for hepatitis C. Let’s face it, we don’t want to have the birds and the bees conversation, let alone one about hepatitis C and blood and needles. However, that talk is critical because it may save your child from acquiring this virus, or others. Here is what everyone needs to know:
- You may be at risk for hepatitis C if your blood comes in to contact with blood that is infected with hepatitis C. Don’t get a tattoo or piercing at a party or other unprofessional setting. Skip the vampire “play” or “blood brother/sister” rituals.
- Sharing needles, syringes, and everything associated with injection drugs is a risk factor for hepatitis C. Straws used for inhaling drugs may also be contaminated.
- Don’t share personal care items that may have been in contact with another person’s blood, such as razors, toothbrushes, and cuticle scissors.
- Having sexual contact with a person infected with hepatitis C is a very low risk, but it is a risk.
If you do have hepatitis C, seek help. The treatment works and it isn’t an ordeal. Together we can do to hepatitis C what was done to smallpox and create a world with one less disease.