Destigmatizing Hepatitis C

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When Debbie Panarase learned she had Hepatitis C nearly 20 years ago, she kept things to herself.

“I was very closed-mouth about it at first because when I did start learning about it, it was IV drug users,it was sexually transmitted**, it was all the things that I had never done before,” she says. “I did not want that stigma to follow me.”

As she learned more, she opened up and even started support group for others in the Chicago area.

“It’s like the elephant in the room so to speak and I want … that stigma to go away,” she says.”What I say to every person that walks through my door is, ‘It doesn’t matter how you got it. You have it, we’re going to address it, and we’re going to take care of it.'”

In order to destigmatize the virus, education is key. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that affects the liver and according to the CDC, 3.2 million Americans are infected. It’s spread through blood-to-blood exposure. This can include exposure to contaminated needles through intravenous drug use, non-professional tattoos, and blood transfusions before the blood bank was screened.

Debbie later found out she contracted the virus when she was just four years old during a blood transfusion.

“I want people to know that this was something I contracted out of a mistake from a hospital because at the time, the blood was not screen properly,” she says. “I want people to know that no matter what the reason is: even if I did do drugs, even if I had all the other things that they say, it doesn’t really matter.”

Doctor Eric Kallwitz of Loyola Medicine’s Department of Hepatology says it’s important for the public to know three main things regarding Hepatitis C:

  1. Testing is important for everyone: Dr. Kallwitz says the CDC recommends everyone in the baby boom population get tested, regardless of whether or not they have a risk factor. “That’s mainly because the prevalence or the commonality of the disease in that population is much higher,” he says. It’s important to note that not everyone with Hepatitis C has an underlying risk factor.
  2. It’s not universally fatal: Not everyone goes on to develop cirrhosis of the liver.
  3. There are effective treatments: “We’re actually seeing more people become cured of Hepatitis C,” Dr. Kallwitz says. “And by cured, I mean that the medications we are currently suing are only for a finite duration of time.”

**It’s very rare for hepatitis C to be spread through sexual intercourse

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