Reviewed by: Jamie Shanahan, FNP
Written by: Abbi Havens
Love, drugs, flower power and… Hepatitis C? The generation of Americans born between 1945 and 1965 are often referred to as “baby boomers,” a name earned by the temporary spike in the birth-rate that occurred in several countries following WWII, notably in the U.S. According to the CDC, baby boomers are 5 times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults and 3 in every 4 persons diagnosed with hepatitis C are of the baby boomer generation.
Why Baby Boomers?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the generation marked by peace and love are so much more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than the general population, however social norms, culture and medical protocol of the era provide some insights. The period of highest hepatitis C virus transmission occurred between 1960 and 1980, when sterilization techniques for surgical procedures were not nearly as advanced as they are today. Widespread screening of the nation’s blood supply began in 1992, so blood transfusions and organ transplants were more likely to be infected with the virus.
And of course, love and drugs. Recreational drug use between 1960 and 1980 occurred prior to the discovery of hepatitis C in 1989, so many users of the era were unaware of the risks of sharing needles and other drug-related equipment. Additionally, the spread of the virus through sexual contact may have been perpetuated by the culture of “free love.”
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C means inflammation of the liver which is caused by the hepatitis C virus. The infection can range from mild and acute illness to a severe chronic illness with serious health implications (approximately 75 to 85 percent of people infected with the hepatitis C virus will develop a chronic infection). Hepatitis C is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluid of an infected person in a number of ways:
- Sharing needles, syringes or other equipment to inject or prepare drugs
- Needlestick injuries in a medical setting
- From a mother infected with the virus to a child during birth
- Sharing contaminated personal hygiene items like razors, toothbrushes or tweezers
- Sexual contact with a person infected with the hepatitis C virus
- Receiving a tattoo or body piercing in an unregulated setting with an unclean needle
Hepatitis C cannot be spread through sharing water, food or utensils, breastfeeding, sneezing or external contact such as hugging or holding hands.
Approximately half of those infected with hepatitis C don’t know it because the virus often shows no symptoms for decades following the initial infection. If left untreated, hepatitis C can result in severe and life-threatening liver damage including liver cancer, liver failure and cirrhosis, a chronic disease of the liver marked by the degeneration of cells, inflammation and thickening of the liver tissue.
Are you a baby boomer? Don’t wait to get a screening.
Despite their heightened risk of contracting hepatitis C, baby boomers just aren’t getting screened for the virus. Federal data shows that in 2013, only 11.9 percent of boomers were screened for hepatitis C. That number increased to a dismal 12.8 percent in 2015, and continues to rise at a glacial pace, leaving the majority of the population at risk of developing severe and irreparable liver damage due to the untreated infection.
A simple blood test called the hepatitis C antibody test can save lives. The test screens for the presence of antibodies known to fight off the virus in the blood. There are two possible test results:
- Negative, or non-reactive. This result means a person does not have hepatitis C. However, if they continue to risk exposure to the virus (through needles, sexual contact, etc.) they should continue to be routinely screened for hepatitis C.
- Positive, or reactive. This result means that at some point, this person was infected with the hepatitis C virus, but a reactive antibody does not automatically mean that a person has hepatitis C. Even if their body has cleared itself of the virus, antibodies will remain in the blood stream forever.
A reactive test result means further blood testing is required to determine if a person is currently infected with hepatitis C.
Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medication that can fully clear the body of the virus in as little as 12 weeks following beginning of treatment. Recent advances in hepatitis C treatment use “direct-acting” antiviral medication, often in conjunction with other antiviral medications, clearing the body of the virus in as little as 8 weeks. So why wait to get tested? A simple test could prevent life-threatening liver damage that may be preventable, so don’t wait when it comes to your health.
If you or a loved one might be at risk of the hepatitis C infection, or if you were born between 1945 and 1965, call 1-800-UT-CARES to schedule a screening today.