In their youth, baby boomers were perceived as the luckiest generation yet of Americans. But thanks to their unprecedented freedom and the boundary-pushing nature of post-World War II America, boomers disproportionately suffer from something nobody wants: hepatitis C.
As a result, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recommending that all baby boomers be tested to see if they are harboring the virus that causes problems, or if they already have been compromised by its presence.
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. It also refers to viral infections that affect the liver, most commonly hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Hepatitis C can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. Read more about hepatitis here, and about the threat it presents when caregivers are careless.
Hepatitis usually spreads when blood from someone infected with the hepatitis C virus is transferred into the body of someone who is not, most commonly by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. It used to be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, but now the blood supply is more thoroughly screened.
According to the CDC, hepatitis infects 1 in 30 baby boomers (the generation born between 1945 and 1965), or 2 million people. It’s the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related death and the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
Most of the boomers infected with hepatitis C are unaware of it—except for ambiguous problems such as fatigue, it remains asymptomatic until the diseased liver is seriously compromised.
So the CDC has issued guidelines proposing that all baby boomers in the U.S. be tested for the virus with a simple, one-time blood test. If it’s positive, treatment can be available before the virus becomes life-threatening. The CDC says newly available therapies can cure as many as 3 in 4 infections.
Baby boomers represent 3 in 4 U.S. adults infected with hepatitis C, and are five times more likely to be infected than other adults; 15,000 die every year from related illnesses, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The CDC estimates that testing could identify more than 800,000 people who otherwise don’t know they have a life-threatening condition. The agency estimates that testing could save more than 120,000 lives.
Hepatitis C can be either “acute” or “chronic”; the former viral infection is a short-term illness that occurs within six months after someone is exposed to the virus. Usually, acute infection leads to chronic infection. That can result in long-term health problems, or death.
There’s no vaccine, so the best way to prevent hepatitis C is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially injecting “recreational” drugs.
To take the CDC’s hepatitis C risk assessment, link here. If your risk is moderate to high, or if you are a baby boomer, ask your doctor for the blood test.
To learn more about the CDC's hepatitis initiative, link here.