This year, on July 24th, my grandmother would have turned 65. Would have, if she hadn’t died twenty-one years ago of complications from Hepatitis C.
All my life I have wondered how things might have been different if I had grown up knowing her. What would I have called her: Grandmom? Mawmaw? Grammy? Or would she insist I call her Linda? Would my family spend Christmases at her house? Did her singing voice really sound like Karen Carpenter’s? Would she pick me up from school and take me roller-skating? So many questions are left unanswered.
Questions like, how did she get Hepatitis C in the first place?
Hepatitis is a general term that means “inflammation of the liver” and can be caused by heavy alcohol use, toxins, certain diseases, and bacterial and viral infections. Hepatitis is also the name of a family of viruses that affect the liver, most commonly Hepatitis A, B, and C in the United States. Hepatitis C can be an acute (short-lived) illness, or it can be a chronic (lifelong) illness. In most cases, the condition becomes chronic. While there are vaccines to prevent Hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine for Hepatitis C.
People usually get Hepatitis C from infected blood. The virus can be spread through sexual activity with an infected person, sharing needles to inject drugs, sharing personal care items that could have gotten blood on them, and can even be passed from mother to newborn baby. Before the United States started screening the blood supply in 1992, some people got Hepatitis C from blood transfusions and organ transplants that were infected with the virus.
Hepatitis C infections are common among Baby Boomers, like my grandmother. No one knows for certain how she got it, and there’s no way for me to know. However it happened, I wish it hadn’t.
And I wish there had been a cure for Hepatitis C then like there is now.
In the early 1990s, when my grandmother was alive, interferon and ribavirin treatments for Hepatitis C were still in their early trial stages. These medicines can help patients but also have some debilitating side effects. Recently, newer medicines called direct antiviral agents (DAA) have been developed, which not only treat Hepatitis C, but can even cure it in most cases. However, these drugs are very expensive, some costing approximately $1,000 per day for 12 weeks. The extreme cost of DAA creates barriers to access for many Americans, including those covered by Medicaid.
We are on the verge of a breakthrough worldwide in preventing, screening, and treating viral hepatitis infections. July 28th, just four days after my grandmother’s birthday, is World Hepatitis Day, a day to call upon policy makers, healthcare personnel, and the public to help wipe out viral hepatitis, once and for all. I hope that you will take the initiative to educate yourself on viral hepatitis, get yourself tested, and maybe even share some educational information using the hashtags #NoHep and #WorldHepDay.
My grandmother never met any of her grandchildren. If we knew then what we know now, she could have.
Please join me in promoting awareness of viral hepatitis on World Hepatitis Day this July 28, 2016.