Baby Boomers Urged to be Tested for Hepatitis C
Michael Lasalandra Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center correspondent
APRIL 01, 2016
If you are a baby boomer, you might find yourself getting tested for the liver-damaging hepatitis C virus at your next checkup, per a recent recommendation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“There are between three and five million people in the United States who have hepatitis C and only about half of them are aware of it,” says Dr. Michael P. Curry, Director of Hepatology and Medical Director of Liver Transplantation in the Transplant Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“And the reason the CDC is targeting baby boomers is that about 75 percent of those in the United States who have hepatitis C are those born between 1945 and 1965, the baby boom generation,” he adds.
Until now, the only people who were urged to be tested were those with a history of transfusions, IV drug use or high-risk sexual behavior. Hepatitis C is spread by blood in the same way that HIV is transmitted.
But the recommendation has been expanded to all baby boomers because in recent years several new drugs have been approved to treat the virus, Dr. Curry explains.
Before these new drugs came to market, the only treatments available were generally ineffective and difficult to take.
“Now, we have very effective treatments,” Dr. Curry says.
While people of any generation can and do contract the virus, boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than those from other generations, the CDC says.
The reason that boomers have high rates of hepatitis C is not completely understood, according to the CDC. Most boomers are believed to have been infected in the 1970s and 1980s, when rates of hepatitis C were the highest.
Many boomers could have gotten infected from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992 and universal precautions were adopted. Others may have become infected from injecting drugs, even if only once in the past, the CDC says.
The virus can stay silent for 20 to 30 years or more before causing problems, including cirrhosis, liver cancer and other complications. It may take that long for symptoms, such as fatigue or jaundice, to show up. But the longer hepatitis C goes untreated, the greater the chance people with it are going to develop life-threatening liver disease.
“It is not a good idea to wait until symptoms show up before getting tested,” says Dr. Curry.
The test for hepatitis C is a simple antibody blood test. Those who test positive for antibodies then are tested again to see if there is detectable virus.
About 15 percent of those who are exposed to the virus are able to spontaneously clear it from their bodies. These people will still have antibodies to the virus. Those who do not clear the virus on their own, however, could eventually develop chronic, serious health problems including liver damage, cirrhosis, cancer or death.
Those found to have the virus are referred to a liver specialist to determine if and when treatment with one or more of the new drugs should be started. Drugs require courses of treatment ranging from eight to 24 weeks. The chances of a cure are considered high, the CDC says.
The new antiviral drugs cause few side effects and are very well tolerated; even if a person has already developed cirrhosis or other complications, treatment may still be effective, according to Dr. Curry.
“Treatment can still decrease the risk of complications,” he says.
Even some people who are on a liver transplant list may be helped by treatment.
The particular treatment regimen is different for each patient and may depend on whether he or she has been treated before, has certain complications, or how much virus is found in the blood.
Most insurance companies cover the cost of the drugs, but will likely approve them first for the sickest patients, says Dr. Curry.