Why Hepatitis C is a Serious Risk for Baby Boomers

By

Jennifer Larson

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When you hear the phrase “Baby Boomers,” what springs to mind? The exuberant youth of the 1960s and 1970s? Or maybe it’s the large wave of people now looking forward to retirement?

For the American Liver Foundation, it’s something that you might not expect: hepatitis C.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that Baby Boomers are five times more likely than other adults in the United States to be infected with hepatitis C.  Five times. Three-quarters of the adults in this nation with hepatitis C are members of the Baby Boomer generation.

In the last few years, a lot has changed in the way we treat hepatitis C. Do you know all the facts?

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Oct 23, 2015

The reason for this demographic’s higher rate of infection? According to the CDC, most of them were likely infected in the 1970s and 1980s during a surge of hepatitis C transmissions. Some might have gotten infected from a contaminated blood transfusion before blood products were universally screened for hepatitis, while others may have gotten infected as the result of injecting drugs.

The bottom line is that many of them were exposed at a younger age but didn’t realize it. Or, if the exposure was the result of youthful indiscretion, they may not want to remember it. In fact, many of them have never even been tested.

Why you need to be tested

Hepatitis C is often called the “silent disease” or “silent epidemic” for a reason. You could live for years without knowing you’re infected. Hepatitis C often does not generate noticeable symptoms—or at least not for a long time—so you might not even know your liver is getting progressively more damaged. You can also spread the virus even if you don’t exhibit any symptoms.

So if you’re a Baby Boomer, it’s important to know. The CDC strongly recommends talking to your doctor about getting screened for hepatitis C if you were born between 1945 and 1965, even if you don’t think you fall into one of the other at-risk categories. If you don’t know your status, you won’t know if you should undergo treatment. And if you need treatment but don’t receive it, you could be risking serious damage to your liver.

Your risk is also elevated if you ever:

  • Shared paraphernalia like needles or syringes for injecting recreational drugs

  • Received clotting factor concentrates made before 1986 or a blood transfusion or solid organ transplant before July 1992

  • Underwent long-term hemodialysis because of kidney disease

  • Have been diagnosed with HIV

  • Have been knowingly exposed to hepatitis C from a needle stick or other type of injury.

Additionally, the rate of chronic hepatitis C infection is higher in the African American population than in other ethnic groups.

Go on, get tested

First, you’ll undergo a simple blood test that will look for hepatitis C antibodies in your blood—this will show whether you’ve ever been exposed to hepatitis C at any point. If your test shows the presence of antibodies to hepatitis C, you’ll undergo a second test known as the hepatitis C RNA test.

This second test will determine if the virus is currently present and active in your body. It measures what’s called your viral load. Lower levels of the virus in your bloodstream usually mean a better chance of knocking out the virus.

Planning your treatment

If your tests come back positive for hepatitis C, you and your doctor can discuss the best course of treatment, taking into account the condition of your liver and your overall health. You may be a good candidate for some of the newer medications, which are reducing the length of time of a course of treatment, as well as the side effects. Bottom line: you can’t do anything about hepatitis C until it is diagnosed.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 1, 2015

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View Sources

Medical References

  1. Galbraith JW, et al. National estimates of healthcare utilization by individuals with hepatitis C virus infection in the United States. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2014 Sep 15; 59(6):755-64.
  2. Galbraith JW, et al. Unrecognized chronic hepatitis C virus infection among baby boomers in the emergency department. Hepatology. 2015; 61 (3) 776–782.
  3. Diagnosis: Who Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C? American Liver Foundation. http://hepc.liverfoundation.org/diagnosis/who-should-get-tested/
  4. Diagnosis: Testing for Hepatitis C. American Liver Foundation. http://hepc.liverfoundation.org/diagnosis/who-should-get-tested/testing-for-hep-c/
  5. Hepatitis C: Proposed Expansion of Testing Recommendations, 2012. CDC Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control. http://hepc.liverfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/HCV-TestingFactSheetNoEmbargo508.pdf
  6. Hepatitis C FAQs for Health Professionals. Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/HCV/HCVfaq.htm
  7. Hepatitis C in the African American Community. Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/Populations/AAC-HepC.htm
  8. Hepatitis C: What Baby Boomers Should Get Tested. Centers for Disease Control. http://www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis/Media/PDFs/FactSheet-boomers.pdf

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