Is There a New Epidemic On The Way?
There could be a new epidemic out there waiting to happen. Just like HIV, we can’t always tell if someone has the virus, some don’t know, worse even, some don’t tell potential partners and when you throw in a hedonistic lifestyle you have the makings of serious health risks.
This virus is called Hepatitis C.
This week our guest writer, Mark*, shares his experience of being a newly diagnosed gay man with Hepatitis C and explain the dangers that are out there.
If we want to stop this epidemic happening then we have to make some drastic changes to our lifestyle and our attitude towards sex.
This Rosh Hashanah has been a real time of reflection & prayer for me as I’ve very recently learnt that I have contracted Hepatitis C. I am slowly absorbing all the misleading information on the internet, gaining more informed information from health care professionals and those living with Hepatitis C. I have come to realise how this is a silent public health issue. In this realisation, I just want to scream from the roof tops ‘Wake up everyone!’
“Hepatitis C was first discovered in the 1980’s when it became apparent that there was a new virus (not hepatitis A or B) causing liver damage. Approximately 20% of those infected with hepatitis C will naturally clear the virus from their body within the first six months. For the remaining 80% a chronic (long-term) infection will develop” Source: The Hepatitis C Trust
Some of the facts that I have learn’t about Hepatitis C have truly shocked me.
Did you know that only 1% of people receive medication at the diagnosis stage? So unless the 20% who will naturally clear the virus are either stopping or reviewing their sexual behaviour within those first 6 months, they potentially are a massive health problem to the wider community; meaning YOU & ME. Though, when I was diagnosed, the nurse told me not to panic, easier said than done.
Then of course there is still the other 80% whose Hepatitis C could lead on to become chronic infection that can lead to scarring of the liver and ultimately to cirrhosis, which is generally apparent after many years.
“The hepatitis C virus is found in blood and is passed on when infected blood gets into another person’s blood stream. It is seen as unlikely (but not impossible) that it can be passed on in semen. Hepatitis C has similar symptoms to the flu so unless you get tested you may not know you have it before it becomes problematic. Other symptoms include diarrhoea, feeling sick or very tired, itchy skin and stomach pain. You may get jaundice, meaning your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow, your urine is dark and your faeces are pale. Specific symptoms to hepatitis C include mental confusion and depression” Source: Terrence Higgins Trust.
The LGBT community has a history of partying hard, where night’s out can turn into days. Where drugs and alcohol are mixed together freely. This dangerous combination can lead to us getting lost in the moment, feeling invincible, not using condoms and putting ourselves at risk. We share straws or needles when taking drugs, toys when having sex and never once thinking ‘Is it safe?’ How many of us have decided on the spur of the moment to get a tattoo without giving it a second thought? Is the needle clean? Do they know what they are doing?
Even though, I, as a gay man, do not identify with most of these situations I am now standing with you. I never imagined that it would happen to me. Particularly, as I felt I had learnt my lesson when I was diagnosed with HIV nearly 11 years ago.
Before you judge me, try this experiment (not for the faint hearted): Stand in front of a mirror, shut your eyes for a moment, think about the person you think is most at risk of contracting Hepatitis C, pay attention to the picture of the person that you have created in your mind, once you have a vivid image in mind, slowly open your eyes, look in the mirror. Who is the image staring back at you. YOU. Hin’ni: Here I stand.
Unless we start talking honestly about the sex we have, the risks we take and the sexually transmitted infections, or sexually transmitted diseases we live with, the rates of Hepatitis C & HIV will continue to rise. Hearing from peers every other week about another person has just got diagnosed with Hepatitis C on top of their HIV, or having a dual diagnosis; it feels as though I am back at the height of the HIV epidemic.
We need to support those who are newly diagnosed review the decisions they make when it comes to sex. Develop confidence in terms of dealing with the underlying stigma they may be facing. Improve how the community communicate about possible STI’s/ STD’s with new sexual partners.
We also need to start talking. Become active in ensuring health promotion messages give accurate information in order to prevent what could be seen as slowly becoming an epidemic in UK. Ensure that the drug companies make the medication cheaper so that it is more widely available. I never thought that nearly three decades on since we saw our community members dying in their masses due to AIDS/ HIV that I would be hearing the same debates around the cost of Hepatitis C medication and ensuring it is available to all.
Hepatitis C is curable. In hepatitis C there are 6 major variations of the virus, labelled 1 to 6. These are known as ‘genotypes’. Different genotypes predominate in different parts of the world. Now, I sit with the waiting game in terms of knowing if I start medication or not. The medication is seen as toxic as chemotherapy; it is not simple and though new medication is promised next year, it still may come with some horrible side effects. I hopefully will be one of the lucky ones and get treatment; either way I will need to review my life a great deal. Luckily, I have great supportive friends and family around me.
So my advice to you is do not panic: stop, review the risks you may be taking and most of all get tested. As the earlier you find out the quicker you can do something about it.
Make getting tested & reviewing your sexual health a 5775 resolution!
|The Hepatitis C Trust:||http://www.hepctrust.org.uk Helpline: 0845 223 4424 10:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday|
|Terrence Higgins Trust:||http://tht.org.uk|
|Antidote @ London Friend:||http://londonfriend.org.uk The UK’s only LGB&T run and targeted drug and alcohol support service|
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author