July 28 is World Hepatitis Day
After years of living a risky and addicted lifestyle, Ronda was somewhat surprised to be diagnosed with a lifelong chronic illness at age 35. While she was well into recovery from her addiction, the diagnosis of hepatitis came with a thought. “I felt like God was telling me I couldn’t have come out of this unscathed,” she said. “It was a moment of clarity, that these are the consequences of the choices I had made.”
Ronda will never know how she contracted hepatitis. In fact, it could have nothing at all to do with her previous lifestyle. However, the behaviors and her addiction increased her risk of infection.
Monday, July 28, 2014 is World Hepatitis Day and River Region Human Services is planning free testing and education to raise awareness in the Jacksonville community. Ronda recently shared her story to underscore the importance of knowing the risks of this serious disease.
Hepatitis is a virus that can go undetected for many years because it typically has few, or no, symptoms. Nearly 72,000 Americans become infected every year, usually by contact with blood or through sexual contact. Hepatitis B and C can become a lifelong, chronic condition that causes serious liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer and even death; however, most people with chronic hepatitis can live for many years without serious symptoms. There are multiple types of Hepatitis such as A, B and C which are contracted in different ways but all can result in permanent liver damage. Vaccines for A and B are available and have resulted in dramatic decreases in Hepatitis A over the last 20 years.
For Ronda, living with Hepatitis has helped her realize how important it is to take care of her health. Ironically, Ronda spent time as a health educator helping others to control their risks, while coping with her own diagnosis. Modeling healthy living, she sees her doctor regularly and gets checked annually to monitor the hepatitis. For a while, she participated in a clinical trial to test the effectiveness of various medications, but found the side effects to be too much to handle, causing her to withdraw from the trial.
Her diagnosis has not held her back. Ronda completed her Master’s degree and now spends time advocating the benefits of being tested for all sexually transmitted diseases. “I believe that once you have the information, you are responsible for that information. It becomes a conscious choice to either take care of yourself, or not,” Ronda says. She emphasizes that the risk of contracting any type of hepatitis goes beyond risky behaviors, and includes everyday things like surgery or dental work – even eating foods that has been contaminated with the virus. As many as 75% of those infected do not know they have hepatitis; regular medical care and testing is critical.
“I encourage people to see a doctor if they have health concerns, or have a Hepatitis diagnosis. I guide them to their healthcare provider. I also encourage them to use Google, WebMD, or other resources to gain insight about hepatitis,” Ronda says.
“Be good to yourself,” Ronda advises, “and establish a solid, open relationship with your healthcare provider. Be informed about all of your options.”
Today, Ronda’s level of infection remains the same as it was when she was first diagnosed in the late 1990s. By taking an active role in her healthcare, she has managed the disease and continuously monitors it. But she says the early days were difficult. “At first, I was mad. I felt like damaged goods,” she says. “I felt like no one would want me. I was wrong, actually. Because I was in recovery when I was diagnosed, I opted to take care of myself. I knew if I stayed clean, I would have more options open to me. It’s like high blood pressure or diabetes. You live with it.”
Free Hepatitis testing is available Monday through Friday, by appointment, at the Duval County Health Department, 515 West 6th Street. To schedule, call 904-253-1861. Free tests also are available at the Immunization Center, 5220 N. Pearl St., on the first and third Mondays of the month from 9 a.m. until Noon. No appointment is necessary.
For more information about Hepatitis, visit www.rrhs.org/hepatitis.