- Written by Claire Yezbak Fadden Claire Yezbak Fadden
The generation that tuned their transistor radios to listen to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or the Carpenters has something else in common: the potential for being infected with hepatitis C.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 30 baby boomers is at risk of the disease, and most don’t know it.
Baby boomers, born primarily between 1946 and 1964, are five times more likely to be infected than other adults. Yet, most infected boomers do not know they have the virus because hepatitis C can damage the liver for many years with few noticeable symptoms.
Hepatitis C causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer, currently the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths and the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
Those factors contributed to the CDC proposing that boomers get a one-time test for the hepatitis C virus. CDC believes this approach will address the largely preventable consequences of this disease, especially in light of newly available therapies that can cure up to 75 percent of infections.
“With increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C,” said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.
More than 2 million U.S. baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C, accounting for 75 percent of American adults living with the virus.
The number of new hepatitis C infections has been going down since the late 1980s, when blood transfusions became regulated and the population stopped sharing needles in response to concerns about HIV, said Michael Ryan, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
“However, the number of people developing advanced liver disease, or cirrhosis, is steadily rising. It’s estimated that 20-50 percent of those infected will develop advanced liver disease,” Ryan said. “When I began my practice 27 years ago, I rarely saw serious liver disease.”
Upward of 15,000 Americans, most of them boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Deaths have been increasing steadily for more than a decade and are projected to grow significantly in coming years, peaking around 2025.
Ryan said 80 percent of the patients he sees exhibit no symptoms.
“The disease takes an average of 20-50 years for people to develop cirrhosis, and those exposed in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s may not get into trouble for many years. By the time they come in complaining of characteristics of the illness, like fatigue, it’s way too late.”
Hep C is transmitted through the blood, rarely through sexual encounters. The good news is the virus can be discovered through a hep C antibody test.
Ryan, who is also a practicing gastroenterologist with Digestive and Liver Disease Specialists of Norfolk, Virginia, encourages adults 56-66 to ask their physicians to run this additional blood test during their yearly physical to detect the illness.
“With hep A and B, the majority of adults will become jaundiced. Rarely does that happen with hep C. An inflamed liver rarely causes discomfort, and even liver cancer may not cause discomfort. That’s why this test is so important,” said Ryan.
“Hepatitis C is the only virus we can cure. And unlike other hepatitis viruses where treatment can be ongoing, the treatment for hepatitis C lasts anywhere from 24-28 weeks.”
“Identifying these hidden infections early will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment, before they develop life-threatening liver disease,” said Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention.
Current CDC guidelines call for testing only individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection; however, studies find that many baby boomers do not perceive themselves to be at risk and are not being tested.
CDC suggests that a one-time hepatitis C testing of individuals born 1945-65 could identify some 800,000 additional people with hepatitis C, prevent the costly consequences of liver cancer and other chronic liver diseases, and save at least 120,000 lives.
To learn more about health risks associated with hepatitis, visit the CDC’s hepatitis website (www.cdc.gov/hepatitis). The site includes an online hepatitis risk-assessment tool to evaluate your risk for viral hepatitis.
Claire Yezbak Fadden is an award-winning freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @claireflaire.
A-B-Cs of Hepatitis
The word hepatitis means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is most often caused by a virus. In the U.S., the most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can also cause hepatitis.
Hepatitis A is an acute liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus, lasting from a few weeks to several months. It does not lead to chronic infection. You contract it through ingestion of fecal matter, even in microscopic amounts; from close, person-to-person contact; or ingestion of contaminated food or drinks.
Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all children starting at age 1, travelers to certain countries, and others at risk.
Hepatitis B is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis B virus. It ranges in severity from a mild illness, lasting a few weeks (acute), to a serious, long-term (chronic) illness that can lead to liver disease or liver cancer.
It is contracted through contact with infectious blood, semen, and other body fluids from having sex with an infected person; sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs; or from an infected mother to her newborn.
Hepatitis B vaccination is recommended for all infants, older children, and adolescents who were not vaccinated previously and adults at risk for HBV infection.
Hepatitis C is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis C virus. HCV infection sometimes results in an acute illness but most often becomes a chronic condition that can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
It is transmitted through contact with the blood of an infected person, primarily through sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C.
You May Be at Higher Risk If You:
- Are of Asian-American, Pacific Islander, or African-American descent
- Received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
- Used intravenous drugs, even if only once
- Received a piercing or tattoo using unsterile equipment
- Have HIV
- Work in healthcare and have been exposed to infected blood
- Were born to a woman with a hepatitis C infection
- Have had unprotected sex with multiple partners