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A dirty little secret: stigma, shame and hepatitis C in the health setting

Abstract

While recent medical innovation shows great promise in treating hepatitis C (HCV), it remains a condition associated with profound stigma. HCV is a bloodborne virus (BBV) most commonly transmitted in high-income countries by injecting drug use, and it is the stigmatising association between the two which is deeply problematic for those with HCV. A qualitative study undertaken in 2002 found that disclosure in health settings places those with HCV in positions of pronounced vulnerability. Disclosure is a primal scene, an interface, where the stigma of HCV, replete with connotations of disease and deviance, potentially transforms those affected into shamed subjects. Standard precautions protect health workers and minimise the transmission of contagion, measures which, in theory, also mitigate the requirement of those with BBVs to unnecessarily disclose their blood status. However, questions on pre-employment health checks, concerns that health treatments might adversely affect the liver and an ethical need to pre-emptively inform healthcare professionals undertaking exposure prone procedures are occasions when those with HCV confront the decision to disclose their blood status. This paper employs Goffman's model of actual and virtual social identities, along with Douglas' notion of dirt and pollution, to examine the dilemmas around disclosure those with HCV negotiate within the health setting. Discriminatory responses by healthcare professionals elucidate the stigmatising potential HCV carries. The subsequent reticence by those with HCV to disclose their blood status risks less than optimum healthcare. Recent studies indicate that stigma occurring in health settings remains a perennial concern for those with HCV.

  • Hepatology
  • Social science

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