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Chris Lawford says get tested for HCV
UPI Health Correspondent
ALBANY, N.Y., Jan. 2 (UPI) -- There is a stigma associated with hepatitis C, or HCV, and that stigma is keeping people from getting tested and getting the treatment that could save their lives.
The stigma comes because most people get HCV from illegal drug use -- even inhaling drugs through a straw, tattoos done under unsanitary conditions and blood-to-blood contact during sex -- but people also get the virus from blood transfusions or major surgery before 1992 as well as needle-stick accidents among healthcare workers and dialysis.
HCV is the most common chronic, blood-to-blood viral infection in the United States. It is the most common chronic infectious disease in Europe and North America and affects an estimated 170 million people worldwide -- four times more prevalent than HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
"You have to get tested for hepatitis C; it won't be picked up during regular blood work. People have to be proactive and ask for the test -- you are not going to know by the way you feel," Christopher Kennedy Lawford told UPI's Caregiving.
Lawford, a 51-year-old actor and author of "Symptoms of Withdrawal: A Memoir of Snapshots and Redemption," was tested for HCV in 2001 some 15 to 20 years after he had been infected. He is sharing his experience of being diagnosed and successfully treated for HCV as part of a national education campaign called Hep C STAT! for Stop, Test And Treat. The campaign encourages individuals to stop and consider their own risk factors, get tested and, if infected, talk to a liver specialist about available treatment options.
"Many in my generation who engaged in adventuresome behaviors, perhaps 20 years ago and maybe even just once -- having put their past behind them -- may not know that these activities leave them at risk for hepatitis C today. Until my diagnosis, I was one of those people." said Lawford.
"After the initial shock of the news, I decided to fight back. Now, four years after successfully completing treatment, there is no trace of the virus in my blood.
"One in five people has something in their past that puts them at risk for hepatitis C," said Lawford. "If you have a risk factor, it doesn't matter which one -- get tested."
HCV can remain in your body and stay dormant. Some of those infected will develop liver disease -- cirrhosis -- and some may die of liver cancer, said Lawford.
Liver cancer is lethal, with untreated patients rarely surviving more than one year.
After reading Part 1 of this series, some took issue with the virus being linked to risk factors such as illegal drug use, tattoos or having more than 10 sexual partners.
One reader wrote that she holds a support group for those with HCV in a small rural U.S. town. She said that people with HCV are afraid to be open about their disease for fear of discrimination and stigma.
"One local doctor informed a woman's husband about her condition before informing her -- he contacted her husband to tell him his wife must have been using drugs or sleeping around because that was the only way she could have gotten the virus," she wrote. "When she came to my group she was distraught as she had done neither."
Another reader wrote of her experience being diagnosed with HCV.
"The doctor walks over and proceeds to listen to my breathing. First, my chest, next my back. Now, I have a tattoo that is on my left shoulder. I forget it's there, as I got it when I was 18. I was then in my 30s, with two kids in elementary school, one in junior high. The doctor sees the tattoo and her whole demeanor changed -- right before my eyes!" she wrote.
"Suddenly she starts looking at me with this air of disgust ... she proceeds to tell me that 'they' need people 'like me' to hold up as an example to others about the dangers of this kind of lifestyle, and on and on. What kind of lifestyle? What is she talking about? Then she said, 'You probably have AIDS!'"
This column has noted other appalling examples of a doctor's lack of bedside manner before, but no one knows better than I that the disease can strike anyone. One of my closest friends, Rick, died of liver cancer -- most likely caused by hepatitis B or C -- when he was 23.
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