As per Wikipedia, the definition of a stigma is as follows: "Stigma is a word that originally means a "sign", "point", or "branding mark"." Wikipedia goes on to call stigma "A badge of shame, a physical mark of infamy or disgrace."
Damn that word. That one word can cause so much strife. The problem is, we allow it to creep into our society and the people who are stigmatized are often the ones giving the stigma the most power. When it comes to Hepatitis C, the stigma attached to the virus is that this is a disease that only happens to drug addicts. Some people with Hep C may have used illegal drugs at some point but Hepatitis C happens to more than just those folks. Hepatitis C affects many who have never used drugs. The research shows that in the group of people known as "Baby Boomers" less than 30% of them contracted HCV thru drug use. Less than 30% however it is this very group who is very much on the receiving end of this stigma.
The HOW of this disease doesn't matter. It shouldn't matter when it comes to HCV or HIV. Who cares how? Why care how? What needs to be cared about is what you do once you know you have it. The biggest blame on the "how" goes to the medical professionals. The first question the doctor will most likely ask you after you've tested positive for HCV is "So did you use IV drugs?" That question sets the stigma in our head. Whether or not we ever used drugs, we realize that this virus has this connection to drug addicts. If you did use drugs, you feel guilty. If you only tried them once, the doctor will probably respond with "It only takes one time." If you were born between 1942 and 1965, chances are better than not that you didn't get this virus from drug use. You got it from things you were exposed to in everyday life.
The problem here is that this same group of people who are being stigmatized are not doing anything about it. When you are talking to someone about your Hepatitis C and that person thinks it is a disease of drug addicts, THAT is your time to educate them. Unless we speak up and out about this stigma, it won't ever go away. You can ignore it and let it run rampant, or you can stop it right there in its tracks, each and every time. I don't care if you did use drugs at some point, there are many folks who did not. Everyone who has this virus has the responsibility to educate the people they speak with about how this virus was actually spread.
Unfortunately, the general public is not educated enough about Hepatitis C. When they think of this virus, the first thought is: "Only drug addicts get that." This is so far from the truth that it isn't even funny. Yes, some people who have Hepatitis C were drug addicts at one time and it is possible that they were infected by sharing a needle or re-using a needle but this is not the only way to contract this horrible little virus. When you come up against this stigma, you need to be armed. Armed with FACTS. If you don't have the facts, I am about to give them to you.
This list of ways to be exposed to this virus is actually pretty mind boggling. It's no wonder so many people have been exposed. These are just some of the ways that a person could have acquired the Hepatitis C virus:
- Blood products received prior to 1992: It wasn't until 1992 that the blood supply was tested for HCV and HIV. Blood transfusions, Factor shots, all of these were suspect.
- Your doctor's office: Back before Universal Precautions came into play in the medical field, you may have gotten a shot from your doctor with a syringe that had been used before. A medical procedure done in the office may have been done with instruments that were not properly sterilized. This happened much more than you realize. We're finding out that it is still happening today. Not a comforting thought is it?
- Your dentist office: Almost the same situation here but more invasive. The tools your dentist used to clean your teeth were not autoclaved. For most Baby Boomers, THIS is where they got infected.
- Ear Piercings at the Mall: Or any other place actually. Those guns that were used to pierce ears were not properly cleaned between customers. A jewelry store does not have the equipment needed to sterilize those guns.
- Immunizations: If you were a child in the 60s, you probably remember standing in line to get your shots... They were given with an air gun. You lined up and someone went down the line giving shot after shot. These same air guns were used in the military. Sign up to defend your Country, get a nice case of Hepatitis C as a thank you.
- Tattoos and Piercings: Tattoo shops were not regulated and did not sterilize equipment, nor did they have the individual ink containers that they have now. With a tattoo shop, don't ever assume, even now, that they are running up to proper standards. Most likely, they are not. The same holds true for any piercings that you might have gotten.
- Blood brothers: Remember that game? Each person pricked their finger to make it bleed and you held your fingers together. Dangerous little game.
- Birth: YES. You could have been born with the virus. If your mother had it and was unaware, it is very possible that it was passed on to you.
- Needle sticks by medical professionals. This one is actually quite common. You can wear gloves all you want but that needle can penetrate latex.
- Manicures and Pedicures in Nail Salons. Even now, many nail salons are not practicing safe sterilization procedures. These places are not regulated. This shouldn't be an issue, but it is.
I could go on and on with possibilities of other ways you could have picked up this virus, but I think I've made my point. Even those who were IV drug users at one time cannot say with any certainty that they contracted Hep C from their drug use. If they went to a dentist in the 80s or early 90s their theory goes out the window. I have just provided you with 10 ways for you to contract Hepatitis C that don't include drug use. Now you have ammunition. You have cold hard facts to come back with when someone tells you that Hepatitis C is a disease of drug addicts. You have the ability to educate someone who tries to call you out as a drug addict because you have Hepatitis C. Currently, the easiest way to contract Hepatitis C IS thru drug use, but for most folks living with this virus, that's not the way they got it.
So I've given you the facts, you have the resources, it's time for every one of us with Hepatitis C to do something about this stigma. Open your mouth and educate people. That's the ONLY way this stigma will go away.Spread the word and more importantly, encourage others to get tested. If you haven't been tested yourself, what are you waiting for?