SACRAMENTO, Calif. — “Hi everyone. I am Leslie. I had hepatitis C. I was treated. I am cured,” shouts Leslie Benson, whirling a shawl around her shoulders and jumping to the front of the room.
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Twenty women lounging on sofas, kneeling on the floor and sitting on the staircase in the corner perk up, turning intently to stare at Benson. Some smile a bit. This matters deeply to these women, mostly parolees, finishing up sentences in a clean and sober living home.
Benson, executive director of a nonprofit hepatitis C prevention group Education for Healthy Choices brings her message — along with movies, plastic livers for demonstrations, prizes and handouts — to recovering drug addicts 10 times a month.
She is frank: “If you shoot up, you probably got it,” she tells them.
She’s scary: “This virus is wily, tough and super-concentrated. It can live in dried blood for four days. You can find 40 million copies of the virus in one milliliter of blood.”
She’s also inspirational: “The liver is the only organ that regenerates itself. Which is why you want try to go after this.”
Benson isn’t sure whether she contracted the virus during a one-week experiment with injected drugs as a teen, or from a blood transfusion she received after a serious accident. In either case, it took 35 years before the symptoms hit her.
“But when I went down, I went down hard,” she says. The chronic pain got so bad she couldn’t work, couldn’t even drive.
Hepatitis C is like that. Most people carry it without symptoms for decades, but when it does kick in, they can take a fast and dangerous downturn. After a year of rigorous treatment, Benson’s blood tested clear of the virus.
And today she’s nothing short of a whirlwind, organizing medical meetings to train doctors about the latest treatments, chatting up potential donors, networking with colleagues to get more done.
She invokes the names of actress Pamela Anderson, who told Larry King in 2002 that her doctor told her it would kill her; singer Naomi Judd, who was treated, cured and now raises money for research; Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler, who told “Access Hollywood” in September that the infection was now “nonexistent” in his bloodstream after 11 months of treatment, including the drug interferon.
Benson said that by having high-profile carriers speak out, more people in the country will realize the scale of the problem.
“It’s considered a junkie’s disease, and that’s a dangerous misconception,” says Benson. “This is everyone’s virus, and we all should be trying to stop it.”
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