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MIAMI (Reuters) - Grammy-award winning Cuban-American singer Jon Secada added his voice on Thursday to a growing public health campaign to raise awareness of chronic hepatitis C infection.
Secada, 50, revealed that his father died last November from complications associated with hepatitis C, after failing to seek proper medical treatment for many years and keeping the disease a secret, even from family members.
Secada is joining forces with the American Liver Foundation in a campaign 'Tune in to Hep C,' backed by fellow singers Gregg Allman of The Allman Brothers and Natalie Cole, 62, the daughter of jazz legend Nat King Cole.
Cole had a life-saving liver transplant in 2009 after she was stricken with the disease, the legacy of drug abuse in her earlier life.
Secada hopes speaking out about his family's experience can help break a taboo attached to the disease and encourage greater understanding about its risks, he told Reuters in an interview.
"My father chose not to tell anyone about his disease for a long time, and he chose not to take action against it for reasons I may never understand," he said. "By the time he was able to explore any aggressive medications it was too late."
Secada does not know how his father contracted the virus, which began to affect his health about eight years ago. His father, Jose Secada, was a political prisoner in Cuba for three years in the 1960s and left the island with his family in 1970.
"Before he passed away, he told me that he wanted me to share his story to help other people like him who have chronic hepatitis C but aren't taking action," Secada said.
"Take it from me, you need to talk to your doctor and talk to your family."
An estimated 3 million to 4 million Americans and 180 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis C, which causes progressive damage to the liver over many years. If untreated it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death. It is also the leading cause of liver transplants.
The virus that causes it is spread through the blood, typically through shared needles or from blood transfusions prior to the early 1990s, when routine screening for the virus became standard practice.
"That's why we are seeing an outbreak of it now. The baby boomers were more exposed to it," said Dr. Leopoldo Arosemena, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Miami who specializes in liver dieses.
Others picked up the virus from sharing razors or needles used for tattoos or intravenous drug use. The latter created the stigma associated with the disease.
"Many people think that just because you have the virus you were doing something you shouldn't be doing," said Arosemena. People automatically think drugs, but in reality they often got it from sources they trusted, contaminated equipment, tattoos, or other things."
Many don't know they are carrying the disease as it can lay dormant for decades. A simple blood test can detect the presence of the disease, which can be successfully treated with a range of new drugs.
"I advise everyone in doubt to get tested," said Arosemena. "By the time it gets to you it might be too late."
The disease disproportionately affects Hispanics who account for almost one third of cases in the United States, due in part to poor hygiene in clinics and hospital in Latin America, as well as tattoos and drug abuse.
"In Latin America it's common for people to get injected at home by a neighbor with old glass syringes that you boil and use again," said Arosemena, noting that the hepatitis C virus is resistant to high temperatures.
Last year marked a major advance in the treatment of hepatitis C with the approvals in May of two new medicines - Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Victrelis from Merck & Co - that offer the promise of far higher cure rates and the potential for shortened treatment durations than the previous standard drugs.
Both companies have sponsored hepatitis C awareness campaigns, and Merck is working with Secada's campaign.
News of the new medicines caught the attention of many people with hepatitis C who had been putting off treatment and Vertex has booked sales in excess of $950 million just since May.
Prior to the availability of the new medicines, patients had to take medications that caused flu-like symptoms that left patients feeling miserable for nearly the entire duration of the 48-week treatment.
As a result many patients with the disease - many of whom are asymptomatic - would discontinue or put off treatment altogether rather than deal with the onerous side effects.
Meanwhile, excitement is building for the next wave of treatments several companies are working on that are still a couple of years off but appear to be highly effective so far in clinical trials.
He continues to perform regularly and recently returned from appearances in Peru, Mexico and Argentina. He brought out a Spanish language album last year, Otra Vez, and has a new album due out later this year featuring Cyndi Lauper, as well as , says he has been tested and does not have the virus.
Born in Cuba, he left the island when he was 8 and had a string of cross-over hits in English and Spanish in the early 1990s before his career dimmed.recording the anthem for a global world peace "super-concert."
Secada still performs regularly and just returned from giving concerts in Peru, Mexico and Argentina.
Reporting By David Adams; Additional reporting by Bill Berkrot; editing by Todd Eastham