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Hepatitis C: Tackling the Stigma

Hepatitis C,PREVENTION

If you have hepatitis C and you didn’t contract it from a blood transfusion, then people tend to think you’re a junkie. And in some cases, they might be right. But not in every case.

Stigma

People with hepatitis C continue to face a strong stigma. But everyone with the virus has their own story of how they contracted it. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t judge each other at all, but we certainly shouldn’t judge people based on generalizations without hearing their unique story.

My Story: Catching the Virus
I used intravenous drugs one time. I thought I had danced with the devil and gotten away, but he left me with a memento.

I got the hepatitis C virus from a relative–someone I didn’t even know existed until I was seven years old. I was tickled to death. We started hanging out on occasion and—even though I knew this relative was heading down the wrong track—I really looked up to him the way younger guys tend to look up to older guys.

Then one night, we had been smoking marijuana and drinking a little bit, so I wasn’t thinking straight. My relative brought out some drugs and a needle. He injected himself and then he injected me. Even under the stupor from the marijuana and alcohol, I trusted him. I trusted he knew what he was doing and that we’d both be okay.

The lesson here is—it only takes one time. A single poor decision can have a lasting impact on your life.

I know people say marijuana is a gateway drug, and it’s a controversial statement. But here’s what I learned from my experience. But if I’d been sober that night, there’s no way I would have injected any drug into my body.

My Story: Catching the Stigma
Had I contracted the virus through other circumstances, maybe I wouldn’t have felt the need to hide my hepatitis C diagnosis. But by the time I received the diagnosis, I was so far removed from the events of that night that I didn’t want to tell my family about it.

Hand-in-hand with the assumption that hepatitis C is a “junkie’s virus,” there’s this idea that if you have hepatitis C, then you’re a lazy, worthless addict. That’s a lot to go up against. Even addicts can get clean and get their act together. It’s a shame we judge people so harshly based on their past, when many of them have worked so hard to leave the past behind and get to where they are today.

For me, the image of laziness or worthlessness just doesn’t ring true. I’ve worked as a trucker for 29 years, the last 15 of them as an owner-operator. I routinely put in 15 hours a day, six days a week—that’s a 90-hour work week. I’m a hard worker. I’ve earned an honest and comfortable living. But even with all that in mind, the stigma of hepatitis C is so strong I still feel my character is often measured by the events of that single, isolated incident all those years ago.

Of course, my wife knows the whole story; I didn’t hide it from her. We were engaged at the time and this was just one of many medical issues we’ve had to work through together. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve been married for 29 years now and that’s a testament to our commitment to each other.

Solving the Stigma Problem
Honestly, I don’t know how we can reduce the stigma. All we can really do is avoid generalizations. Society will always judge people, but hopefully we can learn to judge people based on the entirety of their character. When we find out someone has hepatitis C or HIV or any other condition that carries a stigma, hopefully we can hold back our judgment until we hear that person’s entire story—where they came from, what they’ve been through, who they’ve become.

The other strategy for reducing the stigma is simply reducing the rate of the virus. To do that, education is key. I wish I’d been taught about blood borne pathogens in school.

When I was growing up, there was no education about how a virus like hepatitis C was spread. Informing everyone about viruses—especially how they’re transmitted—can help kids avoid these viruses in the first place. And it will also prepare them for interacting with people who do have hepatitis C or HIV.

If someone told me he was HIV positive, I’d be lying to you if I said I wouldn’t be initially hesitant about shaking hands. But then my sense of reason would kick in, because I know HIV doesn’t spread through hand-to-hand contact. The problem is that, if you don’t know how HIV or hepatitis C is spread, that apprehension doesn’t go away. So education is absolutely necessary.

Otherwise, my advice to anyone who’s going through this is to remember there are always people who have it worse than you. You’ve still got a life to live and you have to make the most of it. Hepatitis C isn’t a death sentence. There are treatment options—more and more people are clearing the virus from their system. And it may still take some time, but if we can get rid of the virus, we can get rid of the stigma.

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