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Naomi Judd Helps Heal People With Hepatitis C

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

After winning Grammy's and accolades galore, Naomi Judd is adored by millions of country music fans. But one 'fan' appreciates Judd more than most. Julia Spears credits the country superstar for being instrumental in her being cured of hepatitis C virus (HCV).

"I owe her a big thank you and I hope that I get to do that in person soon," says Spears, whose husband has played bass for Willie Nelson for 35 years. "I knew that Naomi had been successfully treated and through a mutual friend Naomi got me the referral to the Saint Louis University Liver Center. If Naomi had not been very public with her recovery from hepatitis C, I would never have known where to look for help and I probably would not be cured."

Judd, who is also cured of her HCV, is humbled by Spears gratitude.

"My hepatitis C diagnosis was a personal ground zero -- a life-altering experience," Judd says. "From that moment on, my life did a one-eighty. But I was also deeply committed to getting well. As they say, 'Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle.' Not only am I now free of this hideous virus that could have taken my life, but I can also be a beacon of hope for others."

To help offer more hope to people suffering from liver disease, Judd and Spears will be attending the Denim & Diamonds gala benefit on September 13 to raise funds for the Liver Center's work and research. Both women look forward to again seeing the architect of their cures, Dr. Bruce R. Bacon.

"Dr. Bruce and his team at Saint Louis are compassionate healers on the cutting edge of medicine," Judd says. "To have a resource like them to tell people to go consult is a gift."

A gift that is desperately needed.

Hepatitis is a generic term that refers to inflammation of the liver. HCV is the most common chronic blood-transmitted infection in the United States. According to the American Liver Foundation, approximately four million Americans have been infected with HCV. Up to 85% of those infected with HCV will develop chronic infection. From 8,000 to 10,000 people die annually because of chronic liver disease caused by HCV.

Perhaps more daunting is the fact that as many as 70% of infected Americans have no idea that they carry the virus.

HCV basics

HCV is typically transmitted through direct blood to blood contact and infects the liver, causing inflammation and damage to the liver tissue. While a diagnostic HCV antibody test was invented in 1990, there is still no vaccine to prevent HCV infection.

"I don't think people appreciate that this virus is projected to kill four times as many Americans as AIDS," Judd notes. "It is epidemic."

"Education is the most important strategy for people," explains Bacon, who is a professor of internal medicine and director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. "If you have any of the risk factors, then get tested.  If you have been infected, then get to a specialist who is knowledgeable about evaluation and treatment of patients with Hepatitis C.  There is a lot of misinformation out there about hepatitis C and you have to get past it."

Risk factors include:

  • Blood transfusion prior to 1992
  • IV drug use
  • Snorted cocaine or other drugs using a shared straw or bill
  • Hemodialysis
  • Tattoo or body piercing
  • Shared razor or other personal items that could carry HCV
  • Exposure to blood in the workplace or military

"There is a less than 3% chance that the virus can be transmitted through sexual intercourse," Bacon adds. "CDC doesn't make any recommendations to couples in a stable relationship to do anything differently than they did before - meaning condom use."

"I worked as an ICU nurse and I received a needle stick," Judd says. "That is how I was infected.  I think 80,000 healthcare workers are exposed to contamination on the job that's why I did a public service announcement to promote retractable needles so this transmission avenue can be eliminated or at least reduced."

Since Spears was not a habitual drug user, Bacon calls her infection a 'transient indiscretion of youth.'

"I was 18 years-old and moved to San Francisco in the late 60's and my ex-husband was 10 years my senior and convinced me and my very dear friend that we should try intravenous drugs with him for her 19th birthday," Spears admits. "I'm not proud of it but that's how I got it. Turns out I had had hepatitis C for 34 years and did not know it."

Breakthrough treatment

Often called a "silent" disease because symptoms are either non-existent or so non-specific, as in the case of fatigue, HCV frequently gets attributed to other ailments or even simply getting older.

"I was symptomatic," Judd recalls. "I had malaise and lethargy which means I was sick as a dog and tired."

Spears was so tired and fatigued that she couldn't even drag herself to a doctor initially. And like Judd, Spears had difficulty finding a doctor well versed in HCV. Judd says it was through doing the American Liver Foundation PSAs that she learned of Bacon.

Though they were treated years apart, the first thing Bacon did was confirm each woman's HCV diagnosis and then ordered liver biopsies to determine the extent of the HCV infection and liver damage.

Then each began treatment. 

"When Naomi was treated seven or eight years ago we only had about a 15% chance of cure," Bacon says. "Fortunately, Naomi had a genotype or strain of the virus that was more successfully treated. Julia had a tougher one to treat, but we have better medicine now for her."

Judd received standard interferon that was given three times a week for a year. Last February Julia began a 48-week regimen of pegylated interferon - or longer acting interferon -- that is given once a week by injection plus an oral medication ribavirin.  According to Bacon, this combination is effective in curing people of HCV about 60-65% of the time.

"After six weeks the viral load was greatly reduced and by three months it was gone," Spears says. "But we continued the treatment for the full course. I just had my blood work done and I am virus-free."

"After treatment, my PCR showed up negative," says Judd, who will publish a health and wellness book called Naomi's Breakthrough Guide early next year. "Back then Dr. Bruce used the term 'sustained remission' or 'sustained response.' I appreciate the fact that he now uses the word 'cure.'"

The prognosis for both Judd and Spears is excellent with a normal life expectancy.

"People need to know what the risk factors are for hepatitis C," Judd urges. "And if you are at risk, get tested. And if you do have hepatitis C, learn every thing you can about the disease so you can be your own advocate."

• The American Liver Foundation

• Hepatitis Foundation International

• Saint Louis University Liver Center

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 9/18/2003  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 9/18/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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