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Why Most People Don't Know They're Infected with Hepatitis C

By

Elizabeth Hanes, RN

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PHYSICIAN CONTRIBUTOR

New Hepatitis C Treatments Change the Course of the Disease

Raymond Rubin, MD, discusses the dramatic change in hepatitis C treatment in recent years.
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The hepatitis C virus (HCV or hep C) can be a silent disease, infecting the liver for years without producing symptoms. While this disease can strike anyone, of any age, baby boomers might be the hardest-hit group. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate people born between 1946 and 1965 account for three-quarters of the 3 million HCV cases in the United States. Hep C also kills more boomers than any other age group. Yet many baby boomers have no idea they’re infected with this potentially lethal virus.

What is hepatitis C?

The term "hepatitis" means "liver inflammation." Hepatitis, in general, can be caused by many things, including toxic substances, alcohol abuse and bacterial or viral infections.

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

HCV is a virus that causes infectious hepatitis. HCV can be transmitted from person to person through blood contact. The virus usually produces no symptoms until the liver becomes seriously damaged. By the time HCV causes jaundice, dark urine or other symptoms, the condition can be difficult to treat. Advanced cases of hep C can require a liver transplant or even cause death.

Baby boomers are a high-risk group for HCV.

People born between 1946 and 1965 are at higher risk for having hepatitis C than other groups. While the exact reason for this remains a mystery, social scientists have a theory. Rates of hepatitis C began rising during the 1970s, which may have been due to the “free love” lifestyle of that era. The hepatitis C virus can be transmitted by having sex or sharing needles with an infected person. Boomers who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s may have had multiple sex partners or tried injectable drugs during that time. These activities may have caused the spike in hep c transmission during that era. Additionally, at that time, donor blood was not screened for HCV, bringing the infection to responsible boomers via blood transfusion, including young men wounded in the Vietnam War.

Why don’t baby boomers know they have hep C?

The simple answer to that question is: HCV rarely produces any symptoms until it reaches an advanced stage. Anyone, not only a baby boomer, can be infected with hep C and not know it.

But for baby boomers, specifically, there may be some denial in play, too. Those boomers who engaged in youthful indiscretions and experimentation subsequently matured, married and had children. They may not want to think about those potentially embarrassing experiences. They certainly may not want to tell a doctor or other healthcare provider about their personal history. And since they feel perfectly fine today, they may underestimate their risk of having become infected with hep C 40 years ago. The truth is, if you ever had multiple sex partners or shared a needle (even just once), you are at higher risk for having HCV--no matter how long ago those things occurred.

How You Can Find Out if You Have HCV

Hepatitis C is easily diagnosed with a simple blood test. In fact, the CDC recommends everyone born between 1946 and 1965 get screened for HCV. You also can use the CDC’s online Hepatitis Risk Assessment tool to confidentially determine your personal risk of being infected.

There are highly effective and simple treatments available that can cure hepatitis C. Medications reduce the liver inflammation associated with the virus, and slow the progression of the disease. If you’re at high risk for hep C, and especially if you’re a member of the baby boom generation, you should consider getting screened for this silent killer.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jun 20, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Table 4.4. Reported Cases of Past or Present Hepatitis C, by Demographic Characteristics and Laboratory Tests - Enhanced Viral Hepatitis Surveillance Sites, 2014. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/statistics/2014surveillance/index.htm#tabs-1170600-4
  2. Viral Hepatitis Fact Sheet. Office on Women’s Health. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/viral-hepatitis.html
  3. Know More Hepatitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis/index.htm
  4. Hepatitis C. MedlinePlus. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/hepatitisc.html
  5. Hepatitis Risk Assessment. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/RiskAssessment/

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