Recently, I was at a luncheon and heard a woman speak about the hepatitis C virus (HCV). She was about my age and had no reason to believe that she would have been infected with HCV. But, she did have an undiagnosed infection for years, and her liver had major damage because of the infection.
I have to admit — I knew nothing about HCV. I had some vague knowledge that hepatitis was really bad. But, if you weren’t promiscuous and you didn’t take drugs, you didn’t have to worry about it. I was wrong.
Baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) are at great risk of having an HCV infection. According to the Center for Disease Control, baby boomers are five times more likely to have HCV than other adults. But, most of us don’t realize that we’re at higher risk. And, even though we have an increased tendency to have HCV and testing is recommended by the CDC, HCV testing is not part of the usual bloodwork done during a physical exam. If you don’t ask for it or present symptoms that indicate infection, you are probably not going to be tested for HCV.
There can be an unfair social stigma surrounding an HCV infection. Many people believe that you have to have participated in risky behaviors — casual sex, illegal drug use, getting a tattoo in unsanitary conditions, to name a few — to contract HCV. While these activities can increase a person’s risk, a study published in a 2016 edition of The Lancet: Infectious Diseases found that many Baby boomers with an HCV infection were around 5 years old when they contracted HCV. Therefore, these people were unlikely to have participated in risky behaviors. The study suggested that the early expansion of HCV coincided with the increase in the number of medical procedures conducted during World War II and its immediate aftermath.
After World War II, injection and blood transfusion technologies were still in their infancy. Injections were given in glass and metal syringes, which were sterilized manually and reused. Improper or incomplete sterilization could easily transmit small bloodborne pathogens, like hepatitis C. Disposable syringes were phased in between 1950 and 1960. This study demonstrates that the spread of HCV between 1948 and 1963 is an unfortunate result of the development of modern medicine.
The hepatitis C virus was identified in 1989. In 1991, the first of the interferon drugs for the treatment of HCV was approved by the FDA. Improvements were made to the treatment of HCV over the next 20 years. In 2013, new anti-viral medications were introduced for the treatment of HCV. In addition to higher cure rates, these new drugs offer a far shorter length of treatment and fewer side effects.
So, for baby boomers, it’s very important to be tested for HCV. It’s a simple blood test and can be done in your doctor’s office. Untreated, HCV can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure, or liver cancer. Today, HCV is almost entirely curable. But, you can’t be treated if you don’t know you have HCV. It’s critical that you ask your doctor to do this test.
In addition to baby boomers, the CDC recommends hepatitis C testing for:
— Anyone who received clotting factor concentrates made before 1987.
— Recipients of blood transfusions or solid organ transplants prior to July 1992.
— Long-term hemodialysis patients.
— Current or former injection drug users, including those who injected only once many years ago.
— People with HIV infection.
— People with known exposures to the hepatitis C virus, such as:
— Health care workers or public safety workers after needle sticks involving blood from someone infected with hepatitis C virus.
— Recipients of blood or organs from a donor who tested positive for the hepatitis C virus.
— Children born to mothers with hepatitis C.
Beyond the issue of HCV and baby boomers, there are more than 3 million new HCV infections worldwide each year. A large percentage of these new HCV infections are being seen in people aged 20-29 because of injecting drugs and sharing needles.
For more information about HCV, the North Shore Health Project (5 Center St., Gloucester) offers education and support to people whose lives have been impacted by the hepatitis C virus. Their ONESTOP program (302 Washington St., Gloucester) offers free and confidential testing. For more information, call 978-283-0101 or 978-865-3924, or visit www.healthproject.org.
Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare, Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging.