About 2.7 million Americans have hep C (“hepatitis C,” “hep C virus,” or “HCV”), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rate is so high among baby boomers that doctors urge everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested.
The CDC reports that baby boomers are five times more likely to have hep C than other adults. The disease can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer. According to the CDC, most people with hep C don’t know they have it, as people can live with the disease for decades without symptoms or feeling sick. Thus, testing is super critical so those who are infected can get treated and cured.
Hep C linked to lack of infection prevention – not risky behavior
Hep C is primarily spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Baby boomers could have gotten infected from medical equipment or procedures before universal precautions and infection control procedures were implemented.
Recent research published in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal show that in some cases, the hep C epidemic can be traced back to hospital transmissions caused by reused needles in medical settings. (Again, this is before infection control procedures became the norm.) The hep C epidemic peaked between 1940 and 1965 with reused medical syringes to blame—not injection drug use or high-risk sexual practices among baby boomers.
Prior to 1950, doctors typically used glass and metal syringes, which were washed, disinfected, and reused. Disposable syringes came into play between 1950 and 1960, which reduced the re-use of needles in medical settings. The irony—and also where the false hep C stigma was derived—is this is the same time when the use of recreational and injection drugs, as well as needle sharing, was rising.
“The theory was that in North America the hepatitis C epidemic in baby boomers was due to some behavioral indiscretions that generation had in their younger years,” said Dr. Julio Montaner from the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. He partnered with the CDC to investigate why 75 percent of the up to 6 million adults living with hep C in North America were born between 1945 and 1964.
To trace the disease, researchers examined over 45,000 records and discovered that most of the baby boomers were roughly five years old during the peak of hep C in 1950.
“Thus, it is unlikely that past sporadic risky behavior–experimentation with injecting drug use, unsafe tattooing, high risk sex, travel to endemic areas—was the dominant route of transmission in the group,” the study concludes. This indicates that 1948 to 1963 saw the greatest expansion of the hep C epidemic, which the authors of the study note is “substantially earlier than previously suggested.” They also underscore that “the prevailing view that the North American epidemic is predominately attributable to past sporadic risky behaviors is not supported by our data.”
Baby boomers who dismissed getting tested for hep C because they did not participate in what is now known as a false premise for contracting the disease may need to reconsider and opt for the test.
The only way to know if you have hep C is to get tested. The CDC explains that a blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can tell if a person has ever been infected with the virus. Specifically, the test looks for antibodies (chemicals released in the bloodstream) to the hep C virus.
When getting tested, the CDC recommends patients ask their doctors how and when test results will be shared. There are two possible antibody testing results:
Non-reactive or negative means a person does not have hep C. However, anyone recently exposed to the disease will need to get retested.
Reactive or positive means a person has been exposed to the virus. He or she may have an active infection or has fought off the infection at some point in the past. Industry reports state roughly 25 percent of people exposed to the disease will successfully fight off the virus, according to the CDC.
People with a positive antibody test need a second test to find out if there is an active infection. The second test is called the hepatitis C viral load test or the hepatitis C RNA test.
Hep C symptoms
According to the CDC, approximately 70 to 80 percent of people with acute hep C do not present with symptoms. Some people can have mild to severe symptoms soon after being infected, which may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
- Clay-colored stools
- Joint pain
- Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)
Helpful tips or anyone who tests positive
- Stop drinking alcohol, as it increases damage that hep C causes to the liver.
- Ask your health provider if you need a vaccine against hepatitis A or B.
- Tell your health provider about all the medicines you take or may take. This includes both prescription and nonprescription medicines, vitamins, herbs, and supplements.
- Do not share any items that may contain even small amounts of blood. This includes nail clippers, toothbrushes, razors, or materials for injections.
- Ask your doctor about precautions for sexual activity.
Treatment for Hep C
Hepatitis can be successfully treated. There are several medications plus new treatments that appear to be more effective and have fewer side effects than previous options. Visit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website for a complete list of treatment options: