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Sticking it to the myths about hepatitis C

This week's cover story, "Going Viral," looks into how one drug-seeking hospital worker probably infected dozens of Colorado surgery patients with hepatitis C -- and the emotional fallout of Kristen Parker's recklessness for the patients, several of whom are speaking out here for the first time. Just confronting the fact that you've been injected with a potentially deadly virus is the shock of a lifetime; at the same time, many of the patients are learning quickly that the greatest challenge of having hep C is facing all the unknowns of the virus, which can affect people in radically different ways -- or not at all.

Twenty years ago, no one had even heard of hep C. It was known in medical circles as "non-A, non-B hepatitis" and among a few media alarmists as "the silent killer." But considerable research has gone into the disease over the past two decades, and there are now a range of treatment options and more promising medications in the pipeline. What hasn't gone away is the stigma associated with the virus, which is usually acquired through shared needles among intravenous drug users and convicts. But as the debacle at Rose Medical Center demonstrates, it can also be acquired unwittingly in what most people would assume is a safe and sterile setting.

Over the years, Westword has explored the impact of hep C on Colorado citizens in several ways. For a primer on the virus, see Steve Jackson's "The Hep C Generation" and follow-up coverage. For a report on how the virus has reached epidemic proportions inside American prisons, see my story about Colorado inmate Terry Akers, "The Needle and the Damage Done."

Akers died of cirrhosis not long after that story was published. For many hep C patients, the prognosis isn't as grim. But the stigma remains, despite the fact that exposure can occur in unexpected ways -- as the angry patients at Rose know all too well.

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