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Baby Boomers and Hep C: Why Getting Tested is Vital

Baby Boomers and Hep C: Why Getting Tested is Vital
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By Kitt Walsh

I got an email notice from New York State recently that gave me pause. It warned that, as a Baby Boomer, I was at risk for Hepatitis C and should get tested. I immediately dismissed the idea, thinking, “I wasn’t an intravenous drug user” (except I didn’t phrase it that way in my head. I substituted “junkie” and “dirty” and then, remembering Pam Anderson’s struggle with the disease, added “tattooed” to my judgmental list of how clean little me couldn’t get such a disease.) My son brought me up short.

He reminded me that I had spent some time in hospitals over the last five decades of life, even hospitals in the Caribbean, where standards of hygiene were sketchy. He said that, in those hospitals I might have been exposed to blood. Or, perhaps back home, I’d been exposed while doing a good deed, like donating blood.

His concern got me thinking. How about all those casual lovers I had in my youth, before we were all warned to use condoms? Yes, Hep C, I seemed to recall, could be transmitted through sexual contact. Could I guarantee that none of them had been intravenous drug users? Did any of them sport tattoos?

I started to do some research and here is what I found out and what you need to know:

In 2012, the Center for Disease Control released new guidelines recommending that people born from 1945-1965 get a one-time blood test for Hepatitis C. Rates of Hepatitis C in this age group are 5 times higher than other adults. In the past, blood tests for Hepatitis C have not usually been included in routine physicals.

Hepatitis C infection is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). This virus accounts for much of what was known as non-A non-B hepatitis until 1989. Hepatitis C is the most common blood borne infection in this country. Almost 4 million people in the US have been infected. Three out of four people with the infection are Baby Boomers and 75% of those people don’t even know they’ve been infected.

Hep C is a blood-borne pathogen usually transmitted via infected blood due to a needle stick and most new HCV infections in the USA are from intravenous drug use. Most…but not all. Other factors for transmission include getting an organ transplant or even a transfusion before 1992, having received long-term hemodialysis or received a clotting factor produced before 1987.

And what about sexual transmission? If you or your partner have HIV or any sexually transmitted disease, you are more at risk, as you are if you have ever had rough sex, multiple partners, or had any sex that entailed bleeding (even a little) like anal sex, use of certain toys that might break the skin or had sex during your period or while one or the other of you had genital sores. You didn’t get it from hugging, kissing or from toilet seats or air-transmission like coughing or sneezing (Ethical heads up here: You must tell anyone who was your sex partner, if you are diagnosed with Hep C.)

A law went into effect in New York State that primary care providers must offer a one-time hepatitis C screening to us Boomers. If you are elsewhere in the country, check with your state Department of Health.

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) causes liver disease and most infected people develop chronic infections which may develop into cirrhosis and cancer of the liver, but for years there may be no symptoms (or ones so mild and of such short duration you may think you had a case of the flu) until the disease has advanced and become a life-threatening illness. (However if you develop something obvious, like jaundice, get tested right away.)

To find out if you are at risk, take this brief on-line quiz, which will recommend if you should be tested:

So, what does happen if you have Hepatitis C? There are two stages: Acute and Chronic. Acute means you’ve been infected recently. Chronic means you’ve had the disease for more than 6 months. Some people fight off the disease when they get it and never have liver problems, but 85% will go on to get chronic Hepatitis C.

If you have long-term Hep C, you are getting (unbeknownst to you) lots of little scars on your liver which eventually impair your liver’s ability to function (and over a period of two decades or so can lead to that cancer or cirrhosis. If you drink alcohol, you are at an even bigger risk for severe liver damage.) If the worst happens and your liver stops functioning, (this is called end-stage liver failure), your only hope is a liver transplant (this is what saved David Crosby’s life in 1994 when he had a transplant paid for by musician Phil Collins.)

Unlike Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B, there is not a vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C, but the treatments for Hepatitis C have become more effective and the disease is actually curable in many cases. Medications now have fewer side effects and treatment is shorter (12-24 weeks).

Some people can even be treated without interferon.  (Interferon is an injectable medication that causes many of the side effects, like tiredness, headache and nausea associated with treatment.)

New antiviral medications such as sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and simeprevir (Olysio), Harvoni, and Viekira Pak cure most people, but it may take two courses of treatment and, in the USA, the cost of one full treatment course can cost $100,000 per patient. The insurance companies are under siege about this, naturally, and there is some expectation that, unless the price drops, the government may nationalize some of these drugs, to make them available to all. Until then, there are some other things you can do if you find you have Hep C and don’t have a spare $100,000 lying around. Read this article for some suggestions, including how to contact the drug companies themselves.

First things first though, go get tested. A simple blood test can save you a world of worry.



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