"Well, I like to make jewelry," said Ester LaRita.
She is a talented jewelry maker who loves to spend time with her family. But her world changed overnight after one visit to the doctor.
“I was feeling, like, tired and just not my normal self, and so I went to my primary physician, and he took blood work and sure enough, he found out I had the hepatitis C," she recalled.
“I actually had it for years, and I did not know because I had blood transfusions many years ago. And I did not know I had it, but I always knew I felt different, you know, cause I was always tired and, you know, my health wasn't going the way it should have been going.”
Ester's story is a common one. It's so common that the United States Department of Health & Human Services has deemed viral hepatitis a silent epidemic.
But what is hepatitis?
At its core, hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Viral hepatitis is when that inflammation is caused by a virus, typically either the hepatitis A virus, hepatitis B virus or the hepatitis C virus.
“The most important viral hepatitis in the United States is hepatitis C, and most people, I think, the conversation stems around that. It is the most common bloodborne infection in the United States. It affects probably somewhere around five million people. The estimates vary from three to seven million, but it's a lot of people either way," said Dr. Fred Poordad, Chief of Hepatology at the University Transplant Center.
It's especially common here in Texas.
“Texas is unique for many things, most of them good. The one negative for us is that we have the highest incidents of liver cancer in the United States, especially in South Texas, and a lot of this is driven by hepatitis," Dr. Poordad explained.
So why is this common virus so unknown? Dr. Poordad says it comes down to education and testing.
“I think the other reason it's still a silent epidemic is because physicians are not always checking patients for hepatitis, even though the recommendation, since about 2012, has been that Americans should be screened for hepatitis. That is not being done across the board," he stated.
On top of the physical symptoms, Ester had to battle the stigma surrounding her disease.
“When I let family members know that I had hepatitis C, no one wanted me around. I mean, it was like if I had AIDS," she remembered.
“When I was trying to explain this to them, they automatically said, ‘Oh no, no, no, you gotta get off my couch,’ or, ‘You have to, you're not using my restroom,’ or, ‘You're not gonna drink my water.’ You know, I mean, you feel bad enough as it is. You're sick. You know, and then you have to hear all this.”
“The stigma is largely, it's not in the healthcare providers so much. It's, it's out there in certain parts of the population where they thought, ‘Well, I've never been an injection drug user, so therefore I won't have hepatitis C.' But I can tell you, we find hepatitis C in people that have none of those risk factors. They didn't use intravenous drugs, they didn't use cocaine, they didn't get blood transfusions, and yet they have hepatitis C," said Dr. Poordad.
Before being diagnosed, Ester says she was unaware of the virus.
“I didn't have any knowledge of it either because me myself, what I would hear over the street that hepatitis was, you were going to die. You know what I mean? It was just a rumor, you know? It was not a good thing," she recalled.
“So when I heard about this treatment, at first i wanted to say no, you know, just say no. You know, why should I do it? What do I have to live for?”
But after talking with her physician, she gained a better understanding and a game plan.
“My mom and dad didn't raise no one to be a quitter. So I said, I'm fixing to be a great grandmother. I'm not going to quit. So I know that medicine is going to help. So sure enough, when I got the phone call that nothing's wrong with me, I went, oh! If I could do a cartwheel, I would have done the cartwheel, but I can't do no cartwheels," Ester laughed as she thought back to that moment.
Since finding out she was cured, Ester says her focus has shifted to her future.
“My future is to continue having great-grandchildren, and I want to have all the time that I can with them because I'm enjoying, I'm enjoying the ones I'm getting now.”
July 28 marks World Hepatitis Day. It's a time where experts across the globe hope to educate people about this prevalent disease.
“Get educated about hepatitis. Know the facts. Understand that this is very preventable in most cases and curable in another case. And that there is a lot of disease and death that can be prevented by just us being informed, learning the facts," said Diana Martinez, Deputy State Epidemiologist with the Texas Department of State Health Services.
“The symptoms are generally very subtle, but fatigue, being tired more than you think you should be, is one of the main things that hepatitis does. It can also cause a bit of a brain fog. That's hard to describe, but people know, people that have it know what I mean by that," Dr. Poordad explained.
If you haven't already, officials say the best thing to do is go get tested.
“We would like everyone that has never been tested to go ahead and get tested right away. Particularly those Texans that were born between 1945 and 1965, but also anyone that has any of these risk factors in behaviors that they are, you know, practicing on a daily basis. And for that, you know, you can get better guidance from your clinicians," Martinez said.
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