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Esperanza Masangkay does not want to feel the stigma of suffering from hepatitis C.
“I want to be part of [the campaign to raise] global awareness of the disease,” explained Masangkay, a middle-aged homemaker, on why she decided to speak at a recent forum on Hepatitis C. “It was easier for me to deny that I am sick,” she said, “pero nang nalaman ko na kahit ako na plain housewife ay magkakasakit nang ganyan, dapat mawala ‘yung stigma.”
She was diagnosed with hepatitis C after a blood transfusion inadvertently transmitted the virus to her, but she was not aware of it until about 20 years later. After feeling some abdominal pain, she was found by doctors to have gall bladder stones, and a subsequent chain of tests resulted in that diagnosis.
“I found it unfair that I was diagnosed with hepatitis C,” she said, “so I put [the thought of] it aside to attend to some other matters.”
It took her some time to not only accept the disease, but also to have the courage to tell her family, including a husband working abroad. It turned out that she needed her family's help to get through the process of treatment. She also thanked her attending physician and her friends for providing support.
Masangkay spoke at a forum held in the run-up to World Hepatitis Day, which was last July 28. In the Philippines, this was marked with an information campaign with posters in LRT stations and an event at a Manila hospital which included free hepatitis testing.
The forum was meant to help people learn about hepatitis C, which the event's organizers noted was “the silent killer.” The event, organized by a pharmaceutical firm and by the Hepatology Society of the Philippines, was meant to launch this information campaign.
Most deadly form of hepatitis
There are several forms of hepatitis, a disease that mainly affects the liver. However, the least known and the most deadly is hepatitis C. Unlike the A and B strains of hepatitis, one cannot prevent it through vaccines.
And the way it passes from one person to another is almost exactly similar to HIV. It is often transmitted through bad blood transfusions, unclean medical/surgical equipment, or sexual intercourse with multiple partners. (This may explain, in part, the stigma felt by the illness's sufferers.)
It is so deadly that, over time, there is a chance that up to five percent of those with the illness could die of cirrhosis or liver cancer, as found in research done by the Centers for Disease Control in the United States.
The Hepatology Society of the Philippines estimates that in the Philippines, between 1.1 to 1.9 million people with chronic hepatitis are also at risk of liver cancer or cirrhosis.
A treatment program which may run from six to 12 months is often given to persons with Hepatitis C, according to the US National Library of Medicine, and this includes a regimen of drugs. Apart from this, as Masangkay's experience shows, the need for family and peer support is very important.
Ms. Teddi Dizon is a psychological counselor with the Ugat Foundation, which is located on the Ateneo de Manila campus. She responded to Masangkay's story by talking about how psychological support is key in helping persons with Hepatitis C. Dizon used the framework of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's stages of grief to explain how these persons cope with the illness. The Ugat Foundation is tying up with the Hepatology Society of the Philippines to help provide counseling services for patients and their families.
Vaccination can reduce the risk
The HSP's president, Dr. Diana Payawal, and hepatologist and past president Dr Jose Sollano, Jr, also reminded attendees of the forum about the need to inoculate people against hepatitis A and B at a very early stage. “Everyone should be vaccinated for Hepatitis B,” Dr. Sollano noted, emphasizing that Hepatitis B vaccines could also reduce the risk of getting liver cancer.
At the same time, the two physicians also emphasized that early detection and screening for Hepatitis C was important for everyone. This is especially true for those who received blood transfusions before the 90s.
“The screening techniques for Hepatitis C at that time were not available,” Dr. Payawal noted. “Nowadays, we can screen people especially those who received bad blood transfusions,” Dr. Sollano added. Early detection could ensure treatment of the illness before its effects become deadly.
To stop a silent killer, what counts is getting screened and making sure one is protected against its other forms. Most of all, being informed is key to preventing any deadly illness from striking. The HSP and its partners are willing to help on that front. –KG, GMA News