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Michelle Wesley

"I'm a Hepatitis Hero because stigma prevails when good people say nothing.”

 

In my early 20’s I deferred my university degree and travelled in Europe for five years. While living in Italy, I was introduced to heroin. I was young and naïve and had no idea of the risks I was taking! I always knew that I wanted to get back to uni, and that wasn’t going to happen if I kept injecting heroin. Two years later I left Italy and flew to the UK. One year later, still in the UK,  I was diagnosed with HIV and told I’d be lucky to have four years to live. I was also diagnosed with hepatitis Non A/Non B, but was told that it would be 10 to 15 years before hepatitis caused damage to my liver. The unspoken part of that sentence was, “You won’t live long enough for it to be a problem.”

This was in 1989, when people assumed that because of my HIV status, I must be a “slut” or a “junkie” - stigma and judgement were rife. For a while I felt shame – until I wholeheartedly accepted my inherent worth. I have always been passionate about social justice, and I feel an obligation to stand against judgement and stigma.

The next 10 or so years were a daily struggle for survival. In 2004 my doctors decided I was well enough to undertake treatment for my genotype 4 strain of hepatitis C (contracted 16 years prior when I was living in Italy – most people who travel to Italy bring back  Venetian glass or a Prada silk scarf as a souvenir, I bought  back HIV and hep C!). I spent 48 weeks taking ribavirin and interferon. My year from hell! The fatigue, nausea and body aches were intense. I tested clear of hepatitis after three months of treatment, which was encouraging. It was really hard, but I knew I could do it. Twelve months later I was clear of hepatitis C. I would encourage anyone who is contemplating treatment to go ahead. Clearing hep C changed my life dramatically, and I’ve been able to achieve much more than I ever thought possible.

I’m very encouraged by the advent of new treatments for hep C, and hope access is increased among people living with hep C.

In my later years, I have gained a couple of community service diplomas. I am currently the Peer Support Coordinator with Positive Women Vic, a support and advocacy organisation for women living with HIV.

To defeat hepatitis C and achieve access to hep C treatment, care and support – nobody should be discriminated against because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, disability, religious or spiritual beliefs, country of origin, national status, sexual orientation, gender identity, status as a sex worker, prisoner or detainee, because they use or have used illicit drugs or because they are living with hep C.

I am an activist, and advocate passionately for the end of stigma. I support fairness, universal access to health care and treatment services, and the inherent dignity and rights of all human beings.

Michelle's message to others:

"We can all challenge stigma and drive change"