WASHINGTON — For months, speculation has swirled in both Atlanta and Washington about the health of U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson.
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 irritable.
Monday, he revealed why.
In an exclusive interview with the AJC, Johnson disclosed he has been battling hepatitis C, an incurable, blood-borne liver disease, for more than a decade.
He was officially declared free of the virus in January, but it has ravaged his liver, damaged his thyroid and caused other health problems, including depression, for which he’s also being treated. 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.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis C is transmitted when clean blood comes in contact with blood infected by the disease. Nearly 4 million people in the United States have the disease today, and many more may not even know they have it because it can lie dormant for decades.
Before 1992, hepatitis C was commonly transmitted through blood transfusions. Today, with improved blood screening, the most common mode of transmission is through injection drug use, but it also can be spread by other means, such as through contaminated razor blades or dirty tattoo needles or by coming into contact with infected blood in other ways.
It also is occasionally transmitted through sex, or from a mother to a child, said Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC’s division of viral hepatitis in Atlanta.
Johnson said he first learned he had the disease in 1998. He said he does not know how he contracted it.
With his wife Mereda seated beside him in his Capitol Hill office, Johnson said he has never used intravenous drugs or engaged in any other sort of risks that could have caused him to get the disease. He also said he has never had a blood transfusion.
“I have no idea,” he said when asked how he contracted the disease.
Johnson decided to disclose he had the disease after the AJC asked him about it amid rising questions about his health both in Washington and in the 4th congressional district, east of Atlanta, which he has represented since 2006.
The disease, he said, was one of the reasons he decided to run for office in the first place.
When he was first diagnosed 11 years ago, Johnson said, his doctor gave him 20 years to live.
“I determined that if I only had 20 years to live, I am going to do everything I wanted to do in life,” he said.
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