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Time to lift the stigma surrounding hepatitis C

Time to lift the stigma surrounding hepatitis C

New Zealand Needle Exchange media release, 10 September 2012

New Zealand Needle Exchange National Manager Charles Henderson says New Zealanders need to wake up to the fact that the hepatitis C virus (HCV) can affect anyone and that stigmatising those with the disease could be doing the whole population harm.

“Discrimination against people who are already vulnerable to the effects of an illness can be a profoundly negative experience and can stop them from seeking further health care.

“When people are too scared to put their hand up for treatment, their health problems are likely to be compounded and their potential for spreading infection to others in the wider community increases. It also means opportunities to reach these people with information about how to prevent transmission become significantly limited,” he says.

Mr Henderson made the comments as the 8th Australasian Viral Hepatitis Conference gets underway in Auckland today.

“Currently, around 50,000 New Zealanders are affected by HCV and many are unaware they have it,” Mr Henderson said.

“Fifteen hundred new HCV cases occur in New Zealand every year, and anyone can become a victim, not just drug users, as many people falsely assume.”

He says discrimination against those infected with HCV is very common and can come from employers, insurance companies and even family and friends.

“This means people who fear they may have become infected are reluctant to seek help, and remain a risk at large in the community.

“People don’t realise that many people become infected with HCV just by coming in contact with contaminated blood, not because they are illicit drug users. Others may be carrying the disease because of a foolish mistake they made 20 years ago, and to treat these people like lepers contradicts the principles of natural justice and that’s just not the Kiwi way.”

HCV, which can go undetected for years, deteriorates the liver which seriously affects an individual’s quality of life and can lead to early death. It can remain active in blood outside the body for up to three months and is 100 times more infectious than HIV. There is no immunisation or cure.

Mr Henderson says the respectful treatment of all HCV-affected people is crucial in reducing the impact of the illness on the community at large.

“It is only by providing non-judgmental medical services that HCV affected people will access appropriate health care and the information they need to reduce the risk of passing the disease to others.

“Where there is openness, acceptance and compassion, people close to an HCV-infected person have little to fear because transmission of the disease is easily managed. It is only passed on through contact with blood, not through saliva or by touch.”

Mr Henderson says prevention policy initiatives need to be more wide-ranging, innovative and socially progressive.

“Campaigns to educate intravenous drug users are vital, but unless we also address the lack of awareness in the community and within the health sector, that feeds discrimination, we will not be able to significantly reduce rates of new infections and turn the tide of this neglected epidemic.

“The fact is HCV can affect anyone, and people need to question themselves (rather than stigmatise others) and get tested if they think they could be at risk.”


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