Too many unaware they carry hepatitis C virus
By Suzanne Cloud Fortune can shake your soul in so many ways. You think you'll reduce your odds of a medical catastrophe by staying in shape, eating right, and exercising. Then one day the doctor lowers the boom: Your liver is shot. The hepatitis C virus has had its way with you.
By Suzanne Cloud
Fortune can shake your soul in so many ways. You think you'll reduce your odds of a medical catastrophe by staying in shape, eating right, and exercising. Then one day the doctor lowers the boom: Your liver is shot. The hepatitis C virus has had its way with you.
When the doctor describes how you might have contracted it, a party 40 years ago comes to mind. You injected drugs. Maybe you never did it again. Maybe you did. Either way, it turns out a kid's dumb mistake many years ago could kill you at 60.
Now you are a gym rat and a vegan, and everyone envies how healthy you look. But hepatitis C is a wily and silent virus; it hides for decades, just waiting to jerk your life around, springing into lethal action when least expected.
This is what happened to a Philadelphia saxophonist nine years ago. He got a phone call from a friend. They had been young men on the music scene in 1960s New York City, they had experimented with drugs, and now this friend discovered he had hepatitis C. Luckily, he called Philly to warn the saxophonist.
The saxophonist told me, "I couldn't believe it. I'm not a drinker. Not a smoker. I felt like I was in good shape, so I didn't take it seriously. Then drummer 'Killer' Ray Appleton, who had gotten the same bad news, encouraged me to get tested and get treatment too. So I did.
"Forty-eight weeks of interferon therapy. Twice. If it hadn't been for that friend and Ray, I'd be dead now."
Doctors don't know what makes hepatitis C invisible, but it is. What the human immune system can't see, it can't kill. And while the virus hides, it multiplies over the years, quietly infecting and destroying the liver.
From 2003 to 2012, 36,259 people were reported as hepatitis C positive to the Philadelphia Department of Health, according to Alex Shirreffs, the agency's viral hepatitis prevention coordinator. Among those cases, there were 3,327 deaths (9 percent) for which hepatitis or liver cancer was listed as a primary cause. Thousands more Philadelphians are living with the virus and do not even know they've been infected.
Risk factors among hep C cases reported to the Health Department include tattoos, multiple sexual partners, intravenous drug use, and exposure through medical or dental procedures. Black men are at more risk than white men, and men are at more risk than women. About 50 to 75 percent of the people infected nationwide are unaware of it, and hepatitis now kills more people than HIV.
This is serious. Philadelphia has lost two prominent jazz musicians from this awful virus in the last 10 years. How many others who don't know they're infected can only be guessed. With testing, they could be treated and live. Jazz Bridge recently surveyed musicians in the metro area, and half responded that they had never been tested for hepatitis C.
This is why Jazz Bridge is partnering with Healthy Philadelphia, Hepatitis C Allies of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia Hepatitis Outreach Project to provide free screening, counseling, and health information. We'll be at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, 2110 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, from 5 to 7 p.m. today. Anyone who gets tested will be invited to stay and enjoy that evening's concert, featuring jazz singer Lauren Lark and her band, for free.
Told by his doctors that treatment had worked and he was finally free of the hepatitis C virus, "Killer" Ray Appleton said, "My life started again from there."
Celebrate life, and celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, by joining us today and getting tested.