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Hepatitis C -- the "silent epidemic"

Microbe World
Hepatitis virions.

The “baby boomer” generation – Americans born between 1945 and 1965, has had a big impact on American society and culture. Now a disease is having a big effect on them. Baby boomers are five times more likely to have contracted Hepatitis C than the rest of the population. With symptoms that may not appear for decades, most may not even know they have Hepatitis C until it is too late.

This week on Take Care, Dr. Bryce D. Smith explains why all baby boomers should be tested for Hepatitis C. Dr. Smith is a lead health scientist in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, and is the primary author of recent Hepatitis C testing recommendations that are aimed at members of the baby boomer generation.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Dr. Smith.

Hepatitis Cis a virus that affects the liver, causing inflammation that can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and death. What makes it so dangerous is the fact that it can be present in the body for decades before any symptoms appear, meaning that the longer it goes unnoticed, the longer it damages the liver.

Dr. Smith says the ways in which Hepatitis C can be contracted are one reason why the baby boomer generation is so affected by the virus. Contraction most commonly occurs through percutaneous exposure, or through the skin. Through the use of injection drug use, for example, “which was somewhat more common through the 60s and 70s and 80s,” Dr. Smith says.

The fact that medical professionals weren’t able to identify Hepatitis C until 1992 also plays a significant role. “Hepatitis C was present in the blood supply in the U.S. And so, someone who received a transfusion or received some form of medical care during that time may have acquired Hepatitis C in that way,” said Dr. Smith.

Dr. Smith estimates that more than two million U.S. baby boomers are living with chronic Hepatitis C. “Unfortunately, anywhere from 50 to as much as 75 percent of them are unaware of their infection,” he says. “If they don’t know anything about it, then certainly they can’t do anything about it.”

With such a large percentage of people unaware they have Hepatitis C, Dr. Smith believes the safest course of action is for all baby boomers to be tested.

A simple blood test is all that’s needed to determine if somebody has Hepatitis C or not. Dr. Smith says that many are under the impression they’ve already been tested, which is normally not the case, since Hepatitis C is not included in most routine blood tests.

The only sure way to know is to ask your physician or doctor to run the test, which is usually only needed once. “If someone doesn’t have any ongoing risk, and the vast majority of persons who are baby boomers don’t have any ongoing risk, once you’ve determined you aren’t infected, you don’t need to be tested again,” says Dr. Smith.

Some states are taking legislative measures in hopes to get more baby boomers tested for the disease. Recently, New York state passed a law requiring hospitals and health service providers to offer testing for Hepatitis C to all patients born between 1945 and 1965. This law will take effect in January 2014, and is an important step in stopping what Dr. Smith refers to as “a silent epidemic.”