Why Every Baby Boomer Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C - Virtua Article

Why Every Baby Boomer Should Get Tested for Hepatitis C

By Gregory Seltzer, MD, Gastroenterologist—Virtua Gastroenterology

Recent campaigns from organizations like the Centers for Disease Control are urging everyone born between 1945 and 1965 to get tested for hepatitis C, which is a potentially serious disease. That’s because baby boomers (who would be between ages 53 to 73) are 5 times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. And even though anyone can get hepatitis C, boomers currently account for 3 out of every 4 people who have it.

If you’re a baby boomer and this is news to you, please keep reading for a few answers to commonly asked questions.

What is hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. It ranges in severity from a mild problem to a life-threatening condition. For some (less than 15 percent), the body clears the viral infection on its own. However, it’s also the number one reason Americans need liver transplants, get liver cancer, and/or die from liver failure.

How could I have gotten it?

In the past, hepatitis C was thought to be contracted largely through risky lifestyle choices, like illegal IV drug use and unprotected sex. These are common ways that hepatitis C spreads today, but that wasn’t necessarily the case during the two decades in question.

We now know that most baby boomers were infected through no decision of their own. Those with known risk factors include:

  • Blood transfusion recipients (before the early 1990s)
  • Organ transplant recipients
  • Kidney dialysis patients
  • Health care workers
  • Vietnam War veterans
  • Babies born to infected mothers

Wouldn’t I know if I had it?

Most people with hepatitis C don’t have symptoms; unfortunately, the liver can sustain a lot of damage before symptoms appear. About 80% of those infected by the virus develop a chronic hepatitis C infection, and many don’t realize it until it’s too late. Caught in its early stages, liver damage and scarring can be offset by some tissue regeneration. But, there’s definitely a point that liver function suffers irreparably.

How do I get tested?

Your primary care doctor can order a simple blood test to screen for hepatitis C antibodies, which are produced by cells that try to fight the virus once it enters your system. A negative result means you don’t have it. A positive result means something more, but isn’t necessarily the worst news.

The presence of antibodies may mean you had the disease at one time but don’t any longer, as about 10-15% of people with hepatitis C experience spontaneous cure. A positive antibody screen simply means you’ll need follow-up testing for the active virus, and you may need a referral to a gastroenterologist or a specialist who treats hepatitis C. If you do have an active infection, you’ll want to be treated as soon as possible.

I’ve heard in the past that hepatitis C treatment is just awful—are there any new options?

For many years, hepatitis C treatment involved multiple pills a day plus weekly injections, both with side effects that made most people feel much sicker than the infection itself. Worse yet, cure rates hovered around 40-50%.

But, new medications developed in the past decade have changed the face of hepatitis C treatment. Now, treatments can include a single daily pill for 8 to 12 weeks with minimal side effects and a 95% cure rate. That’s great news for today’s boomers, and all the more reason to get tested.

Don't delay testing—make an appointment

Call 1-888-VIRTUA-3 to make an appointment with a Virtua gastroenterologist. 

Updated April 25, 2017

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