When Vanda Jenkins was diagnosed with Hepatitis C last year, she was already experiencing acute liver failure.
The mother from Frankston, Victoria, had been living for more than 35 years without knowing she had the disease.
Jenkins’ experience might sound rare, but one per cent of Aussies have Hepatitis C, and if untreated it can lead on to life-threatening situations like hers.
For some people, the way they contract the disease isn’t known. The blood borne virus can be transmitted in multiple ways from one person’s blood to another, through shared needles, via blood transfusion (pre-1990 in Australia, before blood was screened), as well as transmission from mother to baby and through sexual transmission.
Jenkins is still uncertain as to how she may have contracted it, although she says finding out she had the infection wasn’t the huge shock you might imagine it would be.
“I just seemed to take it all in my stride and amazingly enough, I didn’t even feel a scared sensation. I was completely ignorant of what Hep C was, even though I had heard of it. All I can recollect was that people who had it had a yellow tinge in their eyes,” Jenkins says.
Another disease you might need to know more about is the Zika Virus. Watch Mamamia TV’s video below. (Post continues after video.)
After being admitted to hospital, Jenkins was educated about her illness quite quickly and was given medication to treat it.
“Immediately they assessed me as having ascites [the accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity, which can be caused by liver disease] and proceeded to drain my stomach, which had accumulated many, many litres of fluid over a nine month period,” she explains.
Jenkins admits part of the reason why it had accumulated for so long was due to her decision to put her health “on the back burner.”
Between having her house on the market and focusing on her family’s needs, she didn’t seek help for the buildup of fluid in her stomach, assuming it was due to middle-age. Had she sought treatment earlier, her liver would not have been as badly affected.
“It could have been dormant for as long as 45 years. My skin had gotten darker and my ignorance to the illness led me to believe maybe because of my age, ‘age spots’ had just joined together. Looking back now I think, ‘How could I have been so stupid?'” Jenkins explains.
Associate Professor Paul Gow, from Austin Health in Melbourne, explains Hepatitis C can be tricky to diagnose because the majority of people living with the disease don't exhibit any symptoms. While some may feel more tired than they usually do, others experience swollen legs, jaundice, a swollen abdomen. Some, like Jenkins, develop severe liver damage.
For most people, if the disease is detected early it is treatable. Hepatitis C is categorised into six disease subtypes, and different genotypes are treated with different combinations of medicines.
"There are a variety of medications that can now effectively treat Hepatitis C. In most people this means they get rid of the virus forever. If not treated it can lead onto cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer," Professor Gow explains.
"These days it should not be a death sentence, unless people leave things too late."
Since finishing her treatment, Vanda Jenkins no longer has Hepatitis C and her liver function has improved significantly. Her treatment included one of the direct acting antiviral treatments for chronic Hepatitis C, called Daklinza.
"I thought all of this would have been impossible. The general public needs to be made aware of these new medications and how easy they are to access. I just had a very dear friend pass recently of liver cancer because her Hep C was left untreated for so long it was too late," she explains.
Jenkins feels like a new chapter has begun in her life.
"It has been such a learning curve. I am more grateful and appreciative. I did think I would miss having my wine and cocktails but really haven't missed it or given it a second thought. I guess my liver did me a huge favour by functioning again, so I owe it that," she says.
Do you have an experience with Hepatitis C?