Did you know that anyone can get hepatitis C, but baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to be infected?
Of all the people in the United States who have hepatitis C, more than 75 percent were born during those years. The reason behind the high rate of infection among boomers isn’t completely understood, but it’s believed that most were exposed in the 1970s and 1980s, when hepatitis C rates were the highest.
Many infected baby boomers were exposed in their teens and 20s. Some may have been infected in a health-care setting before universal precautions and widespread screening of the blood supply began in the early 1990s; others, possibly from behaviors such as sharing needles when injecting drugs. It only takes one time.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that is transmitted through direct contact with contaminated blood. There are vaccines available for hepatitis A and B, which are also caused by viruses, but none is available yet for hepatitis C.
An infection can cause serious liver damage, but it can take decades for it to happen. During that time, people often have no idea they are infected. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Once infected with the hepatitis C virus, nearly 8 in 10 people remain infected for life. Up to 3 in 4 people who are infected don’t know, so they aren’t getting the necessary medical care.”
Many baby boomers who find out they have hepatitis C don’t know how or when they were infected. Diagnosis is often missed because about 80 percent of people who are infected don’t develop any symptoms. When they do appear, symptoms include:
• Decreased appetite
• Abdominal pain
• Dark urine
• Gray-colored feces
• Joint pain
The CDC recommends that everyone born from 1945 through 1965 have a blood test called the hepatitis C antibody test. The test will show if you have ever been infected, but not if you are still infected. If it’s positive, it doesn’t mean you have hepatitis C, only that you were infected at some point in your life. Once you’re infected, you will always have antibodies in your blood. To see if you still have hepatitis C, you will need a follow-up RNA blood test.
The CDC estimates that if baby boomers would get the antibody test, more than 800,000 new cases could be identified and appropriately treated. Currently, many patients with chronic hepatitis C are treated with a combination of medications to remove the virus from the blood and reduce the risks associated with long-term infection. About 60 to 70 percent of people who carry the virus develop chronic liver disease – 5 to 20 percent develop cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver. One to 5 percent die from cirrhosis or liver cancer. The CDC says, “Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and the leading cause of liver transplants.”
People who should be tested for hepatitis C:
• Born from 1945 through 1965
• Have ever injected illegal drugs, even if only once
• Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992
• Received blood or clotting factor concentrates made before 1987
• Have been on kidney dialysis for several years
• Are health care or public safety workers who’ve been stuck with a needle or other sharp object with blood from person with hepatitis C or unknown hepatitis C status
• Have HIV
• Born to a woman with hepatitis C
The American Gastroenterological Association conducted an online survey of 1,006 baby boomers not previously diagnosed with hepatitis C. The findings showed that almost three-quarters (74 percent) had never been tested or were unsure if they have been tested for hepatitis C and 80 percent do not consider themselves at any risk for having the disease.
Dr. Ira M. Jacobson, chief of gastroenterology and hepatology at Cornell University, says, “Many baby boomers have a potentially dangerous ‘it’s not me’ mentality about hepatitis C, and this survey underscores how poorly most people in that generation understand that risk factors do apply to them.
You should consider being tested for hepatitis C or at least have a conversation with your health care provider if you think you might have been exposed at any time during your life, fall into one of the high risk categories, or were born between 1945 and 1965.
Diane Atwood writes the blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood, which received a Gold Lamplighter Award from the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and a Golden Arrow Award from the Maine Public Relations Council. Find it at catchinghealth.com.