With Hepatitis Awareness Month coming to an end, News Channel 25 set out to find out more about what doctors call the "hidden epidemic".
Hepatitis C causes chronic inflammation and irritation to multiple organs, including the liver, and through time can cause permanent damage, scarring, and cirrhosis, according to Baylor Scott & White gastroenterologist Dr. Dawn Sears.
"It's one of those viruses that's very sneaky. People would contract it 20-30 years ago, often through IV drug use or sexually or through a blood transfusion, and they would have no symptoms at all," she said.
But Sears said we're starting to see a second wave of the virus, thanks to the opioid epidemic. There has been a 300 percent increase of Hepatitis C cases in people in their 20s and 30s.
"We're back to the same situation we were in the '60s and '70s where we have dirty needles, we have drug dealers that are selling infected bottles, so we're back where we started," she said.
Temple resident Janet Ebarb, 38, said she contracted the virus after sharing a bad needle. She found out she had Hepatitis C while serving time in state jail.
"I was devastated. It felt like I lost everything. It kind of felt like my life was over right then," she said.
She's far from that life now, though. She's a member of Reaching Out Crisis Ministries, a faith-based rehab program in Temple, and she's seeking treatment for her Hepatitis C.
"One pill a day for only three months with a 90-100 percent cure rate. It's amazing," Sears said.
Karri Brashear, 54, cured her Hepatitis C last July. But unlike Ebarb, Brashear said she contracted it through a blood transfusion she received in 1990 after having an ectopic pregnancy.
"At first, I was kind of shocked," she said. "Like, 'Oh, my gosh! What's this going to do?"
Like Ebarb, Brashear only experienced a few symptoms, like chronic fatigue.
"Some patients feel fatigue, some depression. Some patients have chronic joint pain," Brashear's gastroenterologist, Dr. Jennifer Vincent, said.
Brashear waited nearly eight years to seek a treatment known as Interferon, but it made her feel worse.
"She was so sick, and she was such a trooper," Vincent said.
Last year, Vincent put her on a new treatment, which cured her of Hepatitis C in about three months.
"It's made a huge, huge change on how I feel or just my energy level. And just overall, I'm doing great. It's been wonderful," Brashear said.
Now, Brashear, who works as a substitute teacher and coach at Pirtle Elementary School in Belton, is educating others and fighting preconceptions some have about people living with Hepatitis C.
"It's a stigma that can be ... you never know what people are going to say," she said. "Ask your doctor about it. Try to educate yourself. Don't be afraid to ask questions."
Sears said it's important that people in Brashear's age group, baby boomers, get tested for Hepatitis C. At least 1 in 30 baby boomers has the virus, and 70 percent of them don't know it, Sears said.
"People may have said, 'Well, I didn't participate in free love, I didn't get tattoos, I didn't sleep around, I didn't inject drugs.' Great. Did your get your teeth cleaned in the '60s and '70s? Did you get an infection in your knee? Did you get acupuncture? There were many things that we were being exposed to that we had no idea about at that time," Sears said.
Sears recommends a one-time screening for Hepatitis C. If diagnosed, doctors could treat the virus within three months. Last year, Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Temple cured 350 patients.
"This is the only chronic infection in humans that's ever been cured," Sears said.
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