In a sweeping statement about the lifestyle risks accumulated by a generation, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued draft guidelines suggesting that all 70 million baby boomers get a one-time blood test for the virus that causes hepatitis C. According to the CDC, one in 30 people born between 1945 and 1965 is infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) — 2 million boomers in all — but many, if not most, do not know it because one can live with HCV for many years with few noticeable symptoms, even as the disease scars the liver.
The new draft guidelines were driven by research, including an American Gastroenterological Association survey revealing that 80 percent of boomers did not consider themselves to be at risk and that three out of four boomers have never been tested for HCV. Current guidelines call for HCV testing only for certain high-risk groups, like those who received blood transfusions before 1992 and past recreational intravenous drug users.
Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer, which is the fastest-rising type of cancer-related death in the United States. The damage inflicted by hepatitis C is also the main cause of liver transplants in the country. More than 15,000 Americans die from hepatitis C-related illness each year. Most are boomers. Members of the generation are five times more likely to be infected with HCV than others, and account for more than 75 percent of all adults living with the virus in the United States.
Next Avenue recently reported on the risk of liver cancer in members of the baby boom generation, due in large part to HCV. “The key words are Summer of Love,” hepatologist W. Ray Kim, associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, told us. “An exchange of body fluids, and exposure to blood, are the two main ways people contract HCV, and anyone who ever experimented with injectable drugs or had sex with multiple partners is at risk for having contracted hepatitis C.”
But many physicians do not ask middle-aged patients about prior drug experimentation or sexual partners, and many boomers are embarrassed to admit that they shared needles or had multiple partners in their youth. “If you ever shared a needle, even once, you need to let your doctor know,” Kim said. “Early diagnosis of hepatitis C is crucial, in order to treat it and try to stop it from advancing to liver cancer.”
The efficacy of hepatitis C treatments has improved. The standard treatment is a series of interferon injections, which alone can clear about 30 to 40 percent of the virus from the body. But a recently developed regimen, which combines the injections with protease inhibitor capsules, has doubled the overall effectiveness, and researchers hope that results will continue to improve.
The CDC believes that current treatments for Hepatitis C can cure as many as 75 percent of infections, and it estimates that new testing of boomers could uncover 800,000 new cases and help save more than 120,000 lives.
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