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Why should baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C (HCV)?

Dr. David J. Ensz, MD
Family Practitioner

Baby Boomers, people born between 1945 and 1965, should get tested for hepatitis C (HCV) because they are five times as likely to be infected with the virus as other adults. That's because the HCV epidemic in the U.S. peaked around the middle of the last century, when doctors reused syringes without realizing the risk to patients. Blood and organ donors were not screened for HCV until the early nineties, which means some people were infected when they received blood transfusions or organ donation. The virus can be spread even when a person feels healthy, which is another reason to get tested.

The spread of hepatitis C increased in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, one in 30 people in the baby boomer population—born between 1945 and 1965—have hepatitis C. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Association of Liver Disease and other medical societies want to screen everyone in the baby population so they may receive treatment, if needed. Some of these people were infected with hepatitis C in the 1970s or later. They have already developed liver scarring (cirrhosis), which can lead to liver failure and the need for a transplant. Hepatitis C infection can also lead to liver cancer. This is why it’s so important to be screened and treated for hepatitis C.

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Many baby boomers got infected before the dangers of hepatitis C were well known. Anyone can get hepatitis C, but adults born from 1945 through 1965 are 5 times more likely to have hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is mostly spread through contact with an infected person's blood. Some people could have gotten infected before widespread screening of blood began in 1992.

People who have injected drugs, even if only once in the past, could have been infected with the virus from sharing a needle or drug equipment with someone who had hepatitis C. Many people do not know how or when they were infected.

If you're a baby boomer, get tested for hepatitis C, get treated and get on it today! The reason why is people born between 1945 and 1965 are the segment of the population most likely to have hepatitis C and yet most have no idea they're infected.

Hepatitis C takes its time chipping away at the liver. Decades can pass without any noticeable symptoms, which range from fatigue and easy bruising to light-colored stools. During that time an infected person may unknowingly pass the infection to others through contact with an infected blood (sharing a needle, toothbrush or razor), or sexual activity. The newly infected person may then unknowingly pass it along, too, and that cycle can repeat over and over. See why we have a problem? (By the way, your hep C risk goes up if you have had multiple sex partners, used illegal drugs or had a blood transfusion before 1992.)

Hepatitis C causes liver disease 70 to 85 percent of the time and can trigger liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. The good news is that with treatment, many cases can be cured, so go to your doctor for a simple one-time blood test. It checks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. If you've got the insidious bug, you need to know what subtype of the infection you have so you get the most effective treatment possible. Knowledge is power—the power to protect your health and the health of those with whom you come in contact.

If you’re part of the “baby boom” generation, born between 1945 and 1965, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a message for you: Get tested for hepatitis C.

Hepatitis C is spread through infected blood—and that’s why baby boomers are at such high risk. The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) notes that baby boomers represent 82 percent of Americans with hepatitis C. Because blood wasn’t regularly tested for the virus until the 1990s, people who had blood transfusions before that may have been infected. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted through IV drug use, unprotected sex, unsterile piercings or tattoos or exposure to infected blood, and may be passed from mother to baby during birth. People can continue passing the virus for decades after they are infected.

Because hepatitis C can have no symptoms until considerable damage has been done to the liver, up to 75 percent of those infected don’t even know they have the virus. If newly infected patients have symptoms, they can be ambiguous, such as nausea, poor appetite, fatigue or dark urine. Such symptoms are easily mistaken for flu or an upset stomach, so people tend not to seek medical care.

The CDC’s recommendation for age-based screening may identify more than 800,000 more cases of chronic hepatitis C than conventional screening. Until now, physicians have been screening patients by asking them questions, such as whether they have had a blood transfusion or used IV drugs. However, this was not effective at identifying patients who needed to be tested.

Screening all baby boomers through a simple blood test enables physicians to identify and treat more people in the early stages of the disease and reduces the complications and cost of treating them for cirrhosis, liver cancer and other serious liver problems.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.