Hepatitis C: Tackling the Stigma

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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.

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.

Robin Henry Dretler, M.D., discusses the advancements made in treating hepatitis C.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Feb 16, 2015

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