Dear Life Matters,
The woman I am engaged to was just told by her doctor that she has hepatitis C (HCV). We are both confused and scared. We don’t know what it means or if it is the same or similar to HIV?
Do you know anything about this? Even if you don’t know much about it, can you help us deal with what this means for our lives and how to handle our feelings and the tension we now both feel?
We started to look it up online and really got scared so we are hoping you can shed some light. We often read your column and are hoping you will pick our question.
Dear Very Troubled,
I actually do know something about this because I am certified in the treatment of substance abuse, but also licensed psychologists have to be somewhat on top of these types of things because they affect mental health.
Obviously, a diagnosis such as this can be deeply troubling and cause concern and tension in your relationship if you don’t know what it means or perhaps more importantly, how she got it.
First off, please do not go searching the Internet. While it does have good information, it is also full of misinformation and horror stories that most often are not true.
The best place to get your information is through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institute of Health. But better yet, see a good physician that specializes in this.
Hepatitis C is actually affecting more people worldwide than HIV. Approximately 3.2 million people are chronically infected, according to the CDC.
HIV is the virus that can lead to AIDS. While there is still a significant problem with HIV in the age group of 18-24, and more so among minorities that are not educated on the subject, it is not as widespread as HCV that does not lead to AIDS. It is a different virus altogether, one that only affects the liver, but can be deadly.
The frightening reality is that many people have been infected with the hepatitis C virus and don’t even know it. Unless you are tested for it or get really sick, you may not know until it becomes a real problem. That is because there are no symptoms until you actually get sick from it.
However, the virus does not make everyone sick. Many never get sick, but of those that do, it is frequently a function of their own unhealthy behavior.
Anything that is damaging to the liver, such as alcohol or drug abuse, increases the odds of getting sick from the virus if you have it. Even marijuana use, which most people think is benign, builds up fat cells in the liver, which helps carry and perpetuate the virus.
You should definitely check your health behaviors and do what is best to keep the virus from multiplying.
Also, this is not a death sentence. Even for those who are seriously ill, there are many good treatments. You don’t necessarily need treatment, but if caught early, you can rid yourself of the virus altogether.
Even better, there are newer drugs with fewer side effects coming on the market late this year or early in 2013.
So now, you are worrying about how did she get it and what does this mean for your relationship? I don’t know your age and don’t want to assume, so I will just give you the history and basics.
It was and still can be transferred through blood transfusions. However, the United States some 20 years ago started provisions to protect against this form of contagion.
You can only get HCV through blood-to-blood contact so sexual transmission is possible, but not likely. Some folks prefer safe sex to avoid the possibility. You are actually more likely to get it through a shared razor or toothbrush or from unsanitary manicure or tattoo equipment. Always use your own manicure equipment and if you want a tattoo, be very careful about the artist you choose.
Having said that, the most likely way of contacting HCV is through drug use. Shared needles or shared straws from bloody noses are a major cause of transmission.
Some people simply do not know and may never know how they got it.
You and your fiancée know if any of these apply and this can help you figure out the how of it. But going forward, be careful with the things I have mentioned above. And see a specialist as soon as possible.
Unfortunately it can be transferred to a fetus so it may compromise having children. But before you go there, see if it is early enough to eradicate with the treatments that are out there or coming soon.
I know it is not good news, but it doesn’t have to be the worst news in the world either.
Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist and marriage/family therapist. Visit her at www.drbarge.com or e-mail your anonymous questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Got something on your mind? Let us help you with your life matters, because it does!