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Georgia couple on trek for hepatitis C awareness

If Deborah Simone had it her way, hepatitis C awareness would stick out like the orange vest she wears walking down the highway. The 42-year-old Augusta, Ga., woman is plodding across the country to educate people on the little-known disease that...

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If Deborah Simone had it her way, hepatitis C awareness would stick out like the orange vest she wears walking down the highway.

The 42-year-old Augusta, Ga., woman is plodding across the country to educate people on the little-known disease that can devastate the liver and commonly requires transplants.

Simone's husband, Paul Hagan, is one of 4 million Americans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are infected with hepatitis C.

Monday, while Simone approached Moorhead's south side on U.S. Highway 75, Hagan parked the couple's motor home on the shoulder of the road, ankles swollen and legs too weak to walk beside his wife of 11 years.

"This is the best medicine I could have," said Hagan, 62, a former carpet-layer who contracted the hepatitis C virus in 1979 from a blood transfusion following back surgery.

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For Hagan, the after-effects have been devastating. He suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes. The inability of his liver to effectively process fluids causes him to retain 70 to 80 pounds of water.

"When I'm out there walking, I know all the aches and pains I feel are only a fraction of what Paul has felt," said Simone, who has a doctorate degree in reproductive endocrinology.

This is Simone's second walk to raise awareness of hepatitis C. In 1998, she walked from Augusta to Washington D.C.

Unlike hepatitis A and B, C has no vaccine and there are few effective treatments for it, Simone said.

Advances in blood screenings have halted all but a few new cases from transfusions, but intravenous drug users and people like Hagan, who received blood before those measures were in place, may carry the disease and not know it, Simone said.

"Government funding for hepatitis C research is truly pathetic," Simone said. "You can't just sweep 5 million people under the rug."

North Dakota marks the 18th state on the couple's cross-country trek that began Sept. 11, 2002. Simone said she walks about 18 miles a day before retiring each evening in the motor home.

But the couple's Journey of Hope, which is the name of the nonprofit organization they established in 1998, hasn't gone without a few setbacks.

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On Nov. 4, 2002, six states into their trip, Hagan fell ill and had to be hospitalized for three months.

Doctors in Atlanta told him he had six months to live. Acknowledging the risks and realizing he would someday need a liver transplant, he and his wife started up again this March.

The couple hopes to reach their final stop, Washington D.C., a year from now.

To make the trip, they sold their Georgia home and other belongings. The small donations they receive along the way go toward fueling the gas-guzzling motor home and buying food.

Before leaving Fargo, Hagan will have a checkup at the Veteran's Administration Hospital, something he does every few weeks.

The CDC supplied the couple with thousands of pamphlets they've handed out to clinics and organizations along the way.

"We want to educate people," Simone said. "This ignorance has gone on too long."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Nick Kotzea at (701) 235-7311

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