There's a small alphabet of different hepatitis viruses out there. Probably the one most people think of is Hepatitis A, a fairly common food borne virus that generally tends to be mild and doesn't lead to chronic illness. It's not even included in the one out of 12 number. World Hepatitis Day is highlighting those who live with chronic Hepatitis B or C. Although different viruses, both can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. Both are blood borne and commonly passed through used needles, sex, and from mother to child in the birth process. Hepatitis B and C are not sneezed or coughed onto someone. They're not passed through toilet seats or doorknobs. An infected person's blood has to get into the blood stream of another person. In the case of Hepatitis B, that other person, especially if they're under age 21, would likely be immunized.
One out of 12 is a huge number. It's a number that's often ignored because in most cases you'd never guess a person has hepatitis. If you think you've never met someone with chronic hepatitis, you're wrong. They're athletes, businessmen, mothers, fathers, children. They look fine. They often feel fine. They may live for decades completely unaware that a virus has taken up residence in their liver cells. The yellow eyes and bulging abdomen that people think of when they picture hepatitis happen only at the end. Seventy-five percent of people with Hepatitis B will thankfully never get to that point. They'll live long healthy lives and die of something completely unrelated to their hepatitis. That's wonderful news. But upwards of 25% may die of liver failure or liver cancer and that's far too many. The amount of research though is small. A drop in the bucket really. In this country, with an effective immunization readily available and required for all school-age children, Hepatitis B is considered a non-issue. Why spend money on something you can prevent from happening in the first place? A valid point. But what about those already living with it? It's near pandemic proportions in poor areas of Asia where mother to child transmissions are common. Yet those areas with the greatest need for a cure have the fewest resources to make it happen.
I adore a person who happens to be "one out of 12". She's smart and beautiful and active. She loves red shoes and dress up clothes and she has a virus that's scarring her liver. She is our baby and she's been a brave fighter since the day she was found as a 4 and a half pound infant in southern China. She fought to gain weight and be heard in a crowded orphanage. She was brave when she was shuffled from orphanage to foster home, back to orphanage, and then handed to people unlike any she'd ever seen before. She was brave for her liver biopsy at age 2 and only requested a red popsicle and balloon in exchange for her hospital trip. And she continues to be brave now on week fourteen of a difficult year-long treatment. She's been amazing, tolerating anywhere from 2-5 needle jabs per week either to draw blood or inject medication. Her carry-on to Mexico contained syringes, a sharps container, and a cooler of medication. Hepatitis B is a tenacious virus that doesn't go down without a fight, but there's nothing it can teach our daughter about tenacity. This is a girl who already plans to wear fancy shoes and eat lots of cake at her wedding someday and we're confident that she'll do it. And we're determined that she'll still be wearing fancy shoes and eating lots of cake at her daughter's and granddaughter's weddings too--although she may be a bit heavier and wearing more practical shoes after all those years of cake-eating!
Frankly I'm as "aware" of hepatitis as I ever hope to be. But in this time of world awareness, my hope is that the stigma and myth of hepatitis as a uncommon disease of the "fringe populations" is dispelled. This virus doesn't care if a person is gay or straight, IV drug user or preschooler. If a person has a liver, there's a hepatitis virus that would love to meet them. My daughter doesn't "have" to tell anyone about her hepatitis. Her doctor has given her free reign to participate in all normal childhood activities without any need for disclosure. We knew about our daughter's disease before we adopted her, but it's something we've never openly talked about because it's her story, not ours. Our daughter is chatty though. She said a prayer in her church primary class and asked for a blessing on her liver. She sometimes talks about her medications or her blood draws. How can we expect a three-year-old never to mention something that's so much a part of her life? But we'd hate for her to think our silence equals shame. She hasn't a single thing to be ashamed of and she fills us with pride and joy. For her, everyday is Hepatitis Awareness Day. For the rest of us, I pray that researchers can find a cure to this disease, that people will know they can hug and kiss our daughter without concern, that everyone (especially pointing a finger at China) will immunize their children, and most of all that our darling girl will someday wear fancy shoes and eat lots of cake at her wedding.