People born between 1945 and 1965 are considered “baby boomers,” a generation group that’s also five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other people. In fact, they make up three-quarters of the population diagnosed with hep C. This is often why you’ll hear the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend baby boomers get routine testing for hepatitis C.
There are cultural, historical, and social stigmas attached to both the age group and the disease, and there’s no one single reason why this generation is at a higher risk for hepatitis C. Let’s look at all the possible reasons, from blood transfusions to drug use, treatment options, and how to find support.
While injection drug use is a risk factor, the biggest reason baby boomers are more likely to have hepatitis C is probably due to unsafe medical procedures at the time. In the past, there was no protocol or screening method to check if a blood supply was virus-free. A 2016 study by The Lancet points to unsafe medical procedures of the time rather than drug use as the primary reason behind hepatitis C transmission in baby boomers. Researchers behind the study found that:
- the disease spread before 1965
- the highest infection rates happened during the 1940s and 1960s
- the population that got infected stabilized around 1960
These findings refute the stigma of drug use around the disease. Most baby boomers were far too young to knowingly engage in risky behavior.
Intravenous drug abuse is still considered a significant risk factor for this disease. But according to Hep C Mag, even people who didn’t contract hep C by injecting drugs still face this stigma. A person can also carry the virus for a long time before it causes symptoms. This makes it even more difficult to determine when or how the infection occurred.
The increased risk baby boomers are subject to is also a matter of time and place: They came of age before hepatitis C was identified and routinely tested for.
The stigma that drug use is the main reason for baby boomers contracting hepatitis C can mislead people from getting tested. Researchers behind The Lancet study hope that these findings will help increase rates of screening.
Hepatitis C, like HIV and AIDS, carries certain social stigmas because of the ways in which it can be transmitted by intravenous drug use. However, hepatitis C can also be transmitted through contaminated blood and sexual fluids.
Breaking down barriers to testing and treatment is crucial, especially since a person can have hepatitis C for decades without any notable symptoms. The longer a person goes undiagnosed, the more likely they’ll experience serious health complications or require a liver transplant. Considering the high cure rate with treatment, working through the stigma to get tested or treated is important.
What to do
While the disease can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and even death, newer treatments hold a 90 to 100 percent cure rate.
Treatments in the past were more complicated. They consisted of months-long treatment protocols that involved painful drug injections and low success rates. Today, people receiving a hepatitis C diagnosis can take a drug combination pill for 12 weeks. After finishing this treatment, many people are considered cured.
Consider asking your doctor about taking a hepatitis C screening if you fall into the baby boomer category and haven’t been tested yet. A simple blood test will reveal whether your blood has hepatitis C antibodies. If antibodies are present, you’ll receive reactive, or positive, results. A positive test result doesn’t necessarily mean the virus is active. But it does mean you’ve been infected at some time in the past.
Hep C antibodies always remain in the blood once a person has been infected, even if they’ve cleared the virus. A follow-up blood test is necessary to determine whether you’re currently infected with the virus.
If you receive a hep C diagnosis, your doctor can refer you to a specialist to establish a treatment plan. It can be hard to talk about your diagnosis, especially at first, so consider taking a companion with you for support. A circle of trusted friends or family members can be an invaluable system of support during your treatment.
While being born between 1945 and 1965 is a risk factor for hepatitis C, it’s definitely not a reflection of anyone’s behavior or past. People who don’t engage in high risk behaviors can still acquire hepatitis C. The increased risk is likely due to unsafe medical procedures before hepatitis C was identified or screened for in blood supplies, which began in the early 1990s. There should be no shame or stigma associated with your birth year.
If your birthdate falls between these baby boomer years, consider getting a blood test to screen for hepatitis C. Antiviral treatment holds very promising results.