Here’s a heads up, Baby Boomers! The US Preventive Service Task Force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend we all get tested for hepatitis C. That’s because adults born between 1945 and 1965 are five times more likely to have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus than the rest of the population. One out of every 30 Boomers has been exposed.
These statements scream two big questions: What’s the deal with hepatitis C and why are Baby Boomers so highly at risk? First things first.
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that attacks the liver. It can lead to serious problems such as cirrhosis (scarring), liver cancer and liver failure. Hepatitis C is the main reason people need liver transplants, and the incidence is increasing in the US.
The virus is spread through the blood or body fluids of an infected person. Exposure to the virus most often occurs from reusing infected needles, and less commonly through sex and from mother to baby. Some people caught it from tainted blood transfusions or organ transplants prior to 1992, when screening was initiated.
If you’re carrying the virus, you probably don’t know it. Most of the time, there are no outward symptoms to alert you. In a few cases, though, people might notice a loss of appetite, nausea, fatigue, and a slight yellowing of their eyes and skin, as well as dark urine.
A simple blood test can tell you if you carry antibodies for the hepatitis C virus. Having antibodies means you’ve been exposed to the virus at some point. (About 20 percent of people who have been exposed successfully fight it off.) If you test positive for antibodies, a follow-up test will tell you if you are currently infected. If so, there are new treatments out there that can wipe out the virus in nearly 100 percent of cases.4
So, why are Baby Boomers at risk? The answer is: No one knows for sure. The prevailing thought used to be that it was due to a high-risk lifestyle, which created a stigma for people who had hepatitis C. However, recent research has put the kybosh on that theory.
In a study published in early 2016 in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers say the hepatitis C epidemic can be traced to hospital transmissions caused by the practice of reusing needles in medical settings.
During their study, the researchers found that 1948 to 1963 saw the greatest expansion of hepatitis C virus infection, which suggested that the epidemic had its roots in World War II, when battlefield medical procedures helped spread the virus. After the war, there was a ton of new technology developed, but knowledge of the risks didn’t develop as quickly.
Prior to 1950, physicians typically used glass and metal syringes that were washed and reused. In most cases, they were disinfected, but traces of blood could remain, as on other medical equipment. Disposable needles became popular between 1950 and 1960, but by that time, the drug culture was emerging. And as noted earlier, blood products and organs weren’t carefully screened for viruses until 1992.
The researchers in this study concluded that medical practices, not lifestyle choices, are actually behind the high hepatitis C rates in the Baby Boomer population. Their hope is to eliminate the stigma attached to hepatitis C and encourage people in this generation to go ahead and get tested. Will you?