July 28, 2011 at 5:36 pm , by Amelia Harnish
I could tell I was in the right place when I got off the subway last night. I just followed the lady with the suede fringe bag and the guy with the graying ponytail and motorcycle tattoos. All three of us were on our way to see The Allman Brothers Band perform. Every year the original Southern jam band plays sold-out shows at the Beacon Theatre here in New York City. But last night they and another legend, singer Natalie Cole, joined forces for a special appearance to raise awareness for hepatitis C.
Have you ever heard of it? It’s okay, I’m not sure suede-purse lady or ponytail-guy had, either. I’ve only heard of it because it’s the disease that killed my dad.
It starts out as a viral infection in your blood after a needle stick, blood transfusion or other blood exposure. Some people can clear the infection, but for about 75 percent of those exposed, it becomes chronic and may lead to scarring of the liver (called cirrhosis), liver failure and liver cancer. It affects between 3 and 4 million Americans, so it’s five times as common as HIV. And 75 percent of those with hep C don’t even know they have it, says Hillel Tobias, M.D., a liver disease specialist at New York University.
That’s because there aren’t any symptoms until 20 or 30 years after infection. Greg Allman and Natalie Cole have the disease, and say the stigma surrounding it has got to go. “I was shocked when the doctor told me I had hepatitis C. It had been in my body for decades,” says Cole. A lot of people are reluctant to get tested or tell their families because people associate it with drug use, she adds. (That’s her, above, on stage last night with Allman. You might think the two make an odd musical pairing, but the cover they did of “The Weight” was, in a word, amazing.)
Donated blood wasn’t screened for the virus until 1992. So the highest incidence of chronic infection is in people in their 40s and 50s—about one in 30 people—often because they were infected by a blood transfusion before then. While new cases of hepatitis C infection have remained low since the early ’90s, the problem now is that there’s a whole crop of people who were infected years ago and need to be treated before they start to see damage to their livers. “The classic patient we see is someone who got a blood transfusion after a motorcycle accident or had a hemorrhage when they delivered their baby,” says Dr. Tobias.
The great news is that now, for more patients than ever, chronic hepatitis C can be cured. Two drugs were recently approved by the FDA that, when added to current treatments, eradicate the virus in 80 percent of people, says Dr. Tobias.
But you’ve got to get tested in order to be treated. Besides minor fatigue, there are no symptoms until your liver has already been damaged, which can make treatment more difficult.
So, Dr. Tobias says you should ask your doctor about a hepatitis C blood test if:
• You had a blood transfusion before 1992
• You’ve used needle drugs
• You live with someone who has hepatitis C
“It is such a quiet disease,” says Cole. “But there is no excuse to wait until you have obvious liver problems. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Last night’s concert raised more than $250,000 to support testing, awareness programs and services for people with chronic hepatitis C. To learn more about the disease and read Natalie Cole and Greg Allman’s stories, head to TuneIntoHepC.com.