Between 3.9 and 5.2 million people in the U.S. are infected with hepatitis C (HCV), and a large number of them—as high as 75 percent-- are Baby Boomers, says Donald Jensen, M.D., liver specialist at the University of Chicago. He also points out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated that only about 50 percent of the people with hepatitis C actually know they have the virus. That’s because most people infected with HCV don’t have any symptoms.
Since there now are highly effective treatments for hepatitis C coming on the market, it’s all the more important for people in that age group to be tested for hepatitis C and take advantage of the new treatments.
New screening guidelines
To that end, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last year issued screening recommendations for hepatitis C, particularly for the Baby Boomer population. Specifically, it recommended that Baby Boomers receive a one-time hepatitis C screening. In addition, it also suggested that people who use injectable drugs or received a blood transfusion before 1992 be tested. HCV is spread through infected blood and attacks the liver. Prior to 1992, the blood supply in the U.S. was not widely screened, which is how many people became infected in the past. Currently, the main way people become infected is through injecting drugs.
Other risk factors for hepatitis C include:
- Using injectable drugs even once in the past
- Needlestick injuries in health care settings
- Getting a piercing or tattoo in a non-sterile environment
- Receiving an organ donation prior to 1992
- Having HIV
- Being born to a mother with HCV
- In rare cases, having sexual contact with an infected person.
Dr. Jensen also notes that about 20 to 30 percent of people with hepatitis C don’t have the common risk factors, so that should not be used as a reason to skip the screening.
According to a report published last year by the CDC, the damage from hepatitis C can be prevented with early treatment. But more than half of people in the U.S. don’t receive proper testing for hepatitis C and can’t be treated. In addition, the CDC reports that more people die every year from hepatitis C than HIV, and most of these deaths are among Baby Boomers.
Half of HCV patients get needed follow-up tests
The CDC report found that only half of all patients with HCV got follow-up tests to see if they were still infected with the virus. Although about 20 percent of HCV patients can clear the infection on their own, the majority of people infected (80 percent) cannot, and left untreated, it can lead to severe liver damage.
The test used to identify if a person has ever had the hepatitis C virus is a blood test called an antibody test, which if positive, means you have been infected with HCV at some point. To determine if a person is still infected with the virus, a second test is required. This is called an RNA test and it can determine if treatment is necessary.
For the study, researchers gathered and analyzed data from eight areas of the United States to identify hepatitis C cases. They found that only 51 percent of the HCV cases also had follow-up testing to see if the person was still infected. The other half did not have follow-up testing, and therefore could not be treated properly. In addition, 67 percent of the cases analyzed for the study were Baby Boomers.
As treatment rapidly improves, health experts are urging Baby Boomers and high-risk individuals to get tested for HCV. Dr. Jensen points out that the new medications have high cure rates and few side effects that it makes little sense not to get tested.
Nordqvist, J. (2013, June 25). "Baby Boomers Should Be Tested For Hepatitis C, Says Panel." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262414.php
Glynn, S. (2013, May 9). "Only Half Of Hepatitis C Patients Get Needed Follow-Up Tests." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/260294.php