At Risk for Hepatitis C? If You're a Boomer, Yes
Baby boomers who thought they dodged the deadly hepatitus C virus by avoiding needles, blood transfusions or high-risk sexual behavior in their youth may not be in the clear, the government warns this week.
The number of Americans dying from hepatitis C-related diseases nearly doubled from 1999 to 2007, prompting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to call for anyone between 47 and 67 to get tested for the liver-destroying illness.
One in 30 boomers has been infected -- and many don't even know it, according to the report. Yet all it takes to detect the often-curable disease is a simple blood test. "The CDC views hepatitis C as an unrecognized health crisis for the country, and we believe the time is now for a bold response " says Dr. John W. Ward, the center's hepatitis chief, in an interview with Associated Press.
First identified in 1989, hepatitis C is the top cause of liver transplants in the U.S. New drugs introduced last year, however, can cure about 75 percent of infections, and prevent many of the 15,000 yearly deaths from related diseases.
CDC officials say the new measure calling for one-time blood tests could lead 800,000 more middle-aged Americans to get treatment, and save more than 120,000 lives. Identifying and treating those carrying Hep C will cost about the same as detecting and treating cervical cancer or high cholesterol, Ward tells The Washington Post. But first, people need to know if they are sick.
Are you at risk? You might be if:
You were born between 1945 and 1965. Baby boomers make up more than three-quarters of the 3.2 million Americans infected with the blood-borne virus. And they are five times more likely than other adults to have the disease. "With increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C," CDC director Thomas R. Frieden says in the report. About 3 percent of boomers test positive for the virus, which now kills more Americans than AIDS.
You haven't been tested -- or just can't remember. Almost three-quarters of Americans between 47 and 67 have never been tested or are unsure if they have been tested for Hep C, according to a recent survey by the American Gastroenterological Association, which makes one of the hepatitis C drugs.
You didn't think you were at risk. Past hepatitis C guidelines recommended testing mainly high-risk people, such as health workers and IV drug users. According to webmd.com, health officials says most infections likely occurred in the '70s and '80s, when many boomers were in their teens or early 20s. The CDC now suspects a broader range of activities, ranging from sharing toothbrushes to snorting cocaine, spread the disease. About a quarter of infected boomers, however, don't remember engaging in risky behavior, according to the CDC report. Many people not only did not know they were at risk simply for their age group, but also didn't realize the disease is treatable. "Identifying these hidden infections early will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment before they develop life-threatening liver disease," says Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS.
Your were unaware that common activities spread the infection. Health officials say people could catch the infection through tattoos, piercings, shared razor blades and even manicures. People who underwent blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992, when donated blood and organs were not yet screened for the virus, can also be at risk.
You thought hepatitis C screening was part of your annual physical, or that you would know by now if you were sick. Although the virus can scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer, early symptoms are rare or nonexistent. Dr. Ryan Ford, a hepatitis specialist at Emory University, tells AP that some boomers learned of their infection when they donated blood or had their blood tested during physical exams, such as for life insurance policies. Screening is not part of most routine health physicals. If you want a Hep C blood test, you need to ask for it.
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