Hepatitis C and Baby Boomers: What You Should Know
Who Are the Baby Boomers?
Baby boomers are the 76.5 million American children born between 1946 and 1965 to parents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In the years following the war, there was a massive surge in the nation’s economy, and with it, a “boom” of births.
The nation grew—and changed greatly—as the baby boomers grew up. They played a vital, positive role in the civil rights, feminist, and anti-war movements. They were the “hippie” generation of rock n’roll, drugs, and peaceful protest. Today, many boomers are seniors, and they’re still changing the world.
What’s Hepatitis C?
The hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a contagious infection of the liver. The virus is slow-acting and eventually causes liver cirrhosis and death. HCV can also cause liver cancer.
HCV often causes no symptoms. When it does, they’re temporary and easily dismissed. Because of this, most people don’t know they have it, or that they’re carrying it.
But the virus remains in the body, damaging the liver over many years, or even decades. By the time symptoms appear, the person infected with hepatitis C is very sick.
How Do You Catch Hepatitis C?
HCV is fairly hard to catch. It passes only through blood-to-blood contact. For example, if HCV-infected blood comes into contact with an open sore on your body, or gets into your eyes or your mouth, you may get the virus. You can’t get it from shaking hands, hugging, or kissing. Catching it during sex is very rare, but possible.
Before 1992, blood for transfusions and transplant organs weren’t tested for HCV, which increased risk. Drug users who share syringes are also at extremely high risk for catching the disease. So are healthcare workers because of accidental needle sticks.
Can HCV Be Cured?
Sometimes, the body’s immune system, which defends it against foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria with warrior cells called antibodies, is able to completely destroy the hepatitis C virus. This is relatively rare, however.
In most people, the virus settles into the liver and stays, becoming a chronic, lifelong infection. Over time—often decades—the disease causes serious illness and even death.
Whether to start treating HCV is based on several factors, such as the condition of the liver and other health conditions. The drugs used to treat HCV may clear the virus from the body.
How Are Boomers and HCV Connected?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 75 percent of people infected with hepatitis C today are baby boomers. They were probably infected in the 70s and 80s, when rates of the virus were highest.
But the reason for the high rate of infection today isn’t clear. It might be because of tainted blood transfusions given before 1992, when universal screening for blood-borne diseases was adopted.
Or maybe it’s because some boomers injected drugs with shared needles. It only had to happen once.
How to Find Out if You Have Hepatitis C
The way some boomers may have gotten HCV isn’t important. What really matters is that they get their blood tested for it. That way, they can get care and treatment. Up to three out of four people don’t even know they have hepatitis C.
If you’re a boomer, ask your doctor for the HCV antibody test. A simple blood test, it can tell if you’ve ever had the infection by looking for leftover antibodies your body made to fight it. If the test is positive, you’ll need a different test to tell if you still have it.
How Is Hepatitis C Treated?
There are several drugs available that can treat and even eliminate the hepatitis C virus. Interferon, a protein produced naturally in the body, is taken once a week. It stimulates the immune system to neutralize or destroy the virus.
Ribavirin is taken by mouth every day. It fights the hepatitis C virus and several others.
Boceprevir and Teleprevir are anti-viral drugs that work by keeping HCV from replicating. These drugs cannot be taken together. They are used individually with interferon and ribavirin.
What Happens If Hepatitis C Isn’t Treated?
The liver is one of the most important organs in the body. It acts as a filter to remove impurities. It also manufactures and stores substances that are vital for life, like iron. The hepatitis C virus causes severe, irreversible scarring over time, called cirrhosis. Eventually the liver will fail and toxins will build up in the body, causing death.
Hepatitis C can also cause cancer of the liver. In either case, the only lifesaving option is getting a liver transplant.
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- Hepatitis C medications: A review and update for patients. (2011, May 16). U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Retrieved on January 3, 2014, from http://www.hepatitis.va.gov/products/patient/treatment-update.asp#S2X
- Hepatitis C: Why baby boomers should get tested. (2013, May). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved on January 14, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis/Media/PDFs/FactSheet-boomers.pdf