UPDATE: Hank Johnson, Guam, and Hepatitis C: U.S. Rep Suffers From Too-Common Illness

Earlier today, we (along with a lot of other Web sites) poked fun at Rep. Hank Johnson's assertion that, were the U.S. to relocate naval personnel to Guam, "my fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize." Over at The Gaggle, we called it the quote of the day, noting that "Guam is 212 square miles with a population of 175,877 (2008 estimate)." 

Now we've come across information that makes the statement seem a lot less funny. On MondayIn December, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an exclusive in which Johnson admitted to having hepatitis C. Reporter Bob Keefe writes:

The Lithonia Democrat's already-thin frame has shed 30 pounds in the past year. His speech is slower than ever, and he regularly gets lost in thought in the middle of a discussion. He is easily fatigued and often impatient and irritable ... To keep the disease in remission, Johnson is going through an experimental treatment that he said has been the worst part so far.

"I am weaker than I ever have been," Johnson, 55, said in his Capitol Hill office.

Hepatitis C is a serious illness—one that's affecting more and more baby boomers like Johnson. In January, NEWSWEEK's Sarah Kliff documented the rising cases of hep C in those over 50, a rate that has the Institute of Medicine concerned. She writes that two thirds of those with hepatitis C are adults in their 50s and 60s, thanks in part to the virus's ability to lie dormant for decades before attacking. When it does become active, the consequences can be devastating:

Of those infected with the virus, about 60–70 percent will develop chronic liver disease. For about 40 percent, a months-long regimen of shots and pills will eradicate the virus. But many will continue to live with the disease as a chronic condition; 1 to 5 percent will die of the consequences of liver disease. Some expect to see these conditions become significantly more prevalent as boomers' cases move from virus to disease. One study, a Milliman Report published in May 2009, predicted that the number of patients with advanced liver disease will be four times greater than it is today by 2029. Cases of cirrhosis, scarring of the liver, will also quadruple.

That article also notes that many boomers who may have experimented with IV drug use in the '70s might now be seeing the signs of hep C, but it's important to note that the virus is spread through any blood contact: an accidental needle stick in a hospital setting, blood transfusions or organ donations before screening became standard in 1992, or (like Pamela Anderson, who also suffers from hep C) during a visit to an unhygienic tattoo parlor.

The disease itself can lead to fatigue and depression, and its treatments can affect mood and appetite. When we called Johnson's office today for comment, his spokesperson didn't offer up hep C as an excuse for his comment about Guam, and we're in no position to do so either. But we do think it's worth noting.

Update: This article originally stated that The Atlanta Journal-Constitution article ran this Monday. In fact, it ran Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. Johnson's office informed me today that the congressman is finished with his treatments and—according to a March 12 press release—feels good, though he remains committed to raising awareness and funds for hep C prevention and treatment. We regret the error. You may now resume mocking his Guam comments.

 

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