Hepatitis C, a viral disease that affects the liver, is four times more common than the HIV virus. Around the world, 170 million people are infected with it. Between 20,000 and 50,000 people in the Republic of Ireland are estimated to have hepatitis C infection – but more than half of those don’t know they have it. Up to 1,000 new cases are identified each year.
The late stage of the disease causes irreversible liver damage. In the early stages, however, two-thirds of people don’t experience any symptoms and don’t realise they have the virus. Many of those infected are not diagnosed until they have more serious symptoms, such as cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver. Those people are at a higher risk of developing liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. It is also possible to contract the disease through medical and dental procedures, piercings, tattoos and acupuncture, if the instruments aren’t properly sterilised. The disease can be sexually transmitted. It can also pass from mother to child during pregnancy and birth.
Community Response, an alcohol and hepatitis support service in Dublin, and the Janssen pharmaceutical company, have launched a campaign to raise awareness of the disease and highlight the need to fund the Health Service Executive’s National Hepatitis C Strategy. The campaign organisers urge anyone who may be at risk of hepatitis C to seek help and get tested.
Lawrence Murphy, who had hepatitis C for more than 10 years before he received treatment, has avoided the more serious symptoms of the illness. His liver is mildly scarred, but it could have been worse. In the 1990s, Murphy contracted the disease through intravenous drug use, but didn’t know he had it until he was tested at a methadone clinic in 2002. He first went for treatment in 2010, a year after he had kicked his drug habit. The doctor who diagnosed Murphy gave him a pamphlet with information about the disease.
“I didn’t really understand what it was. I didn’t think it was that severe. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad. I was left to my own devices,” he says. He had some mild flu-like symptoms and aches and pains over the years, but he didn’t attribute them to hepatitis C.
Before he sought treatment, he put the diagnosis to the back of his mind, but sometimes he thought about it while brushing his teeth. The doctor had warned that sharing toothbrushes and razors could transmit the virus, as they might have blood on them. According to Dr Shay Keating, who works with the National Drug Treatment Centre and St James’s Hospital, about 2,000 people contracted hepatitis C through contaminated blood products within the State decades ago. Those people are entitled to a range of medical support services.
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