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Willie Nelson pitches in against deadly disease Hep C
  Nelson, other celebrities film public service announcement about hepatitis C
By Mary Ann Roser AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF Sunday, March 20, 2005
LUCK -- Willie Nelson put his star wattage behind a cause that he said "loves the dark" and brings pain to many people, including some of his friends in the music world.
Nelson lent his voice and face Saturday to a planned public service announcement for hepatitis C, the most common blood-borne infection in the country. The announcement could hit the nation's TV stations this summer, making the Texas icon a new voice in the fight against a daunting ailment.
Hepatitis C, which often goes undetected for many years and can be deadly, infects nearly five times as many people as the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. Several Austin musicians have spoken out about their experiences with hepatitis C, including Alejandro Escovedo and Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson, who sat on a panel Saturday at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
"It's a great cause," Nelson said, wearing a ball cap, his braided hair lying across the front of a black T-shirt. "Anything I can do, I'm glad to do."
A passel of celebrities, including musicians Billy Joe Shaver, Pauline Reese, Shooter Jennings, Little Joe (of Little Joe y La Familia), comedian Jackie Martling and soap opera star Anthony Herrera, descended on a barn in Luck, the mock Western town on Nelson's property west of Austin built for the 1980s movie "Red Headed Stranger."
If all goes well, TV stations could air the announcement, something they do free for nonprofits and other organizations, as early as June, said Jim "Taco" Gerik of Dallas, president of Tocrok Productions Inc. and director of Saturday's announcement. Gerik has no doubt stations will show it.
"There were tears in my eyes," he said after Nelson filmed his lines about hepatitis C's stealth attack and his plea that people act to stop it. "It was that good."
Julia Spears, the wife of Nelson's bass player Bee Spears, has hepatitis C and yearned to do an announcement to raise awareness about the illness and urge people to get tested.
"Willie is doing this out of the goodness of his heart," she said. "He understands what a problem hepatitis C is."
Along with the generosity of Nelson and the other celebrities, Panavision donated the cameras, Kodak donated the film, and the crews who worked on the shoot donated their time, Gerik said. The Lakeway Inn got in the spirit and donated some rooms to the out-of-towners involved in the shoot.
Spears, 54, executive producer of the announcement, wants people to come away with more information -- and hope. Those were the reasons she created the Julia Spears Foundation after she was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2001, long after she was infected from what she calls a brief but foolish encounter with drugs in 1968.
"I knew how frightening it could be," she said.
Hepatitis C affects 3.9 million, or 1.8 percent, of Americans. It is primarily spread by blood-to-blood contact, with about 80 percent of people being exposed through needles contaminated by someone with hepatitis C.
Exposure can also occur from sexual intercourse, long-term kidney dialysis, shared toothbrushes and razors, and blood transfusions and organ transplants before testing began in July 1992. Less common causes include tattooing or body piercing when nonsterile procedures or equipment is used.
More than half of the people with hepatitis C don't know they have it.
"The lack of awareness may be the scariest" aspect of the disease, said the writer and co- director, Tracy Helms of Dallas.
With treatment, Spears, who lives with her husband in Franklin, Tenn., is now cured, she said. She underwent the standard therapy of pegylated interferon injections and antiviral ribavirin pills. Not everyone can tolerate that treatment, but of those who complete it, up to 65 percent can be cured, said Dr. Bruce Bacon of St. Louis.
Bacon, who was at the shoot Saturday and treated Spears, said the virus disappears on its own in another 20 percent of people. But the most severely affected have livers so badly damaged they need a transplant. Some die waiting for an organ.
Sadly, Bacon said, people with hepatitis C are sometimes automatically told by ill-informed doctors to prepare to die. County music star Naomi Judd was given three years to live when she was diagnosed more than a decade ago, he said.
"It's not a death sentence," said Bacon, who treated Judd. The singer also has used her celebrity to raise awareness of hepatitis C.
Musicians as a group are considered to be at high risk of hepatitis C because of lifestyle factors, but Spears said the disease doesn't discriminate.
"It's not just musicians," Spears said. "It's bankers; it's doctors; it's CEOs of corporations; it's the 60-year-old woman who had a blood transfusion before 1992, who's just finding out. . . . It's anyone."
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