An Auckland woman cured from a three-decade long battle with hepatitis C is urging people to get tested for the disease.
In 1982, Wendy Overy was in her 30s, and a mum to two boys, when she had a major operation that required her to get a blood transfusion.
Little did she know the life blood that would save her would also transmit the hepatitis C virus, or HCV, into her bloodstream.
Hepatitis C, which is spread from blood to blood contact, affects the liver and can lead to liver cancer.
Over the next decade, Overy had “episodes” of a few days to a few weeks where she would feel tired, nauseous and grumpy.
It was out of character, but as a travelling nurse working 16-hour days in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, she chalked it up to sheer work exhaustion.
Blood testing came into effect in New Zealand blood banks in 1992, screening for blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV.
The next year, after attempting to give blood on Auckland’s North Shore, Overy received a letter in the mail informing her she had contracted hepatitis C.
It was a shock, she said, as she had never smoked or taken drugs, and drank very rarely.
Overy told her family, a handful of friends and those she worked with, but otherwise kept her diagnosis quiet as she worried about the social stigma.
“I didn’t feel the need to advertise the fact because at that time hepatitis C was coming on to the horizon. it was seen as a druggy’s disease,” she said.
She struggled over the next 10 years, taking injectable medication Interferon which often made her feel ill and developing cirrhosis of the liver as a result of the disease.
But she said she continued to work and “just got on with it”.
In 2014, she was selected for a 12-week drug trial, taking daily tablets to decrease the virus’ level in her blood.
The treatment of the drug had a cost of between $70,000 and $140,000.
Halfway through the trial, she was feeling energy levels she hadn’t experienced in 30 years. At the end of the course, the virus had completely cleared.
Now, three years on, cured of the life-threatening disease, she wants people who may have been at risk of contracting it to get checked.
Those at high risk include people who received a blood transfusions prior to 1992 or have partaken in injectable drugs, even once.
She said social stigmas may prevent people from getting tested, but said, with a cure readily available, to let go of shame and take advantage of the treatment.
Last year, treatment became fully funded and can be prescribed by a GP.
“It’s given me a new lease on life,” she said.
While she still has cirrhosis, she has an active life, going on cruises to the Pacific and getting along to events like the Melbourne Cup.
“I don’t want to live until I die, I want to die living,” she said.
About Hepatitis C
* There are an estimated 50,000 kiwis living with hepatitis C, but it is thought that only half of that number have been diagnosed and that 25,000 Kiwis may have contracted the disease without knowing.
* The symptoms are nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue, joint pain and abdominal pain. Because the symptoms are so common, the disease can be left untreated for years.
* Those most at risk of hepatitis C are those who have: injected drugs; received a tattoo or body piercing using unsterile equipment; received medical treatment in a high-risk country; received blood products prior to 1992; ever been in prison; been born to a mother with hepatitis C.
Written by : Kashka Tunstall
© The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand 2016