What Baby Boomers Need to Know About Hepatitis C

Courtesy CDC

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just issued a draft recommendation that all baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965 get a one-time blood test for Hepatitis C. That’s because they are five times more likely to be infected than other adults and account for more than three-quarters of all cases of the infection in this country.

Hepatitis C is a viral infection in the liver and 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.

It usually takes decades after being exposed to the hepatitis C virus before liver damage develops. According to the CDC, “more than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illnesses, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and deaths have been increasing steadily for over a decade and are projected to grow significantly in coming years.”

The CDC states that many baby boomers were infected with the virus in their teens and twenties. Some may have been exposed to it in a healthcare setting before universal precautions and widespread screening of the blood supply began in the early 90s. Others may have been infected from behaviors such as sharing needles when injecting drugs.

The current guidelines for who should be tested for hepatitis C are based on the following risk factors:

  • Anyone who has ever injected illegal drugs
  • Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants before July 1992, or clotting factor concentrates made before 1987
  • Patients who have ever received long-term hemodialysis treatment
  • Persons with known exposures to hepatitis C, such as:
    • Health care workers after needle sticks involving blood from a patient with hepatitis C
    • Recipients of blood/organs from a donor who later tested positive for hepatitis C
  • People living with HIV
  • People with signs or symptoms of liver disease (e.g., abnormal liver enzyme tests)
  • Children born to mothers who have hepatitis C

The CDC proposes adding to the list:

  • Anyone born from 1945 through 1965

The American Gastroenterological Association recently conducted an online survey of 1,006 baby boomers not previously diagnosed with hepatitis C. The findings showed that almost three-quarters (74 percent) have never been tested or are unsure if they have been tested for hepatitis C and 80 percent do not consider themselves at any risk for having the disease.

Ira M. Jacobson, MD, AGAF, 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.”

Diagnosis of hepatitis C is often missed because about 80 percent of people who are infected don’t develop any symptoms. If symptoms of infection do appear they include:

  • fever
  • fatigue
  • decreased appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • dark urine
  • grey-colored feces
  • joint pain
  • jaundice

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 estimates that if baby boomers would get the one-time blood test, more than 800,000 news 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. If chronic infection causes liver disease it may be necessary to have a liver transplant.

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 1945 and 1965.