Around 215,000 people in the UK currently have hep C (HCV), although only 50% are thought to be diagnosed. But what is the truth about the disease, and how should we react?
Transmitted through the sharing of needles and sometimes through unprotected sex, hep C can sometimes cause serious and potentially life-threatening damage to the liver if left untreated over many years.
In the October issue of Attitude – available to download and in shops now – we hear from gay men living with hep C about the devastating consequences stigma can have, as well as the healthcare professionals currently battling to raise greater awareness of the disease in the LGBT community.
Earlier this year, Paul Felming was overjoyed when he received the news that he had cleared hep C from his blood. He had been living with the virus since 2010.
While he managed to escape what are sometimes severe physical symptoms, it was the lack of information about the virus that took its toll on his mental well-being.
“It’s the mental stuff, the stigma. I felt dirty that I had hep C,” he says. “I felt as if I’d done something to be ashamed of.”
Reflecting on the alienation he would felt from other men when he disclosed his status, Paul, who is also HIV-positive, sighs heavily.
“I found the stigma of hep C much, much great that the stigma surrounding HIV.”
He adds: “More often than not, I was faced with rejection [of the type] ‘I’d rather not have sex with you, mate, because you’ve got hep C.”
Dr Laura Waters, a consultant in GU/HIV and HIV/hepatitis lead at Mortimer Market sexual health centre in London, agrees.
“Hepatitis C is absolutely rife with stigma,” she observes.
“I think the reason that hep C is more stigmatised is that [with] all the fantastic work done predominantly by the community in helping destigmatise HIV and HIV testing, we haven’t had the same input, or, rather, the same output, in terms of hepatitis C.
“You don’t have that same sort of groundswell of patient voices.”
Indeed, it seems that HCV has taken on the stigma and fear that HIV once carried. But as an illness that also disproportionately affects gay and bisexual men, it seems that awareness and education remains woefully low.
Paul identifies how PrEP on the one hand has liberated gay men from the fear of contracting HIV, while at the same time almost blinding them to the issues around other STIs, including HCV.
“I have all the praise in the world for PrEP, but the subliminal message of it is: you can now have bareback sex, because PrEP will protect you from HIV.
“It will, which is brilliant. But it’s not going to protect you from gonorrhea, syphilis or hep C,” he adds.