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Baby Boomers and Hepatitis C

Glenn Ellis
By Glenn Ellis

 Most of us have seen the commercials on television stating that people born from 1945 to 1965 have the highest rate of hepatitis C but most don’t know they’re infected. 

This is a very sobering fact stated from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on this disease. The commercials go on to say that someone with hepatitis C can live for decades without any symptoms but over time the disease can cause serious health problems. 

People born from 1945–1965, sometimes referred to as baby boomers, are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults. Hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and even liver cancer.  

The reason that people born from 1945–1965 have high rates of hepatitis C is not completely understood. Most baby boomers are believed to have become infected in the 1960s through the 1980s when transmission of hepatitis C was highest.  

The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. The reason why it is called “hepatitis C” is because there are three different types of hepatitis—hepatitis A, hepatitis B and Hepatitis C—each caused by three different viruses. Each of the different types has a different mode of transportation and can affect the liver in their own unique way. Those with hepatitis A can usually improve without treatment, whereas hepatitis B and C can be either acute or chronic. Only hepatitis A and B have vaccines available to prevent them. 

Hepatitis C can lead to damage of the liver, the largest organ in the body. This important organ helps the body digest food, store energy and remove toxic materials. Hepatitis C can cause serious long-term health problems of the liver including liver failure, liver cancer or even death. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is the most common reason for liver transplantation in the U.S. More Americans die from hepatitis C than any other infectious disease, as reported by the CDC. In 2015, almost 20,000 Americans died from hepatitis C related causes, and most were age 55 and older. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine at this time to prevent hepatitis C. 

Hepatitis C is primarily spread through contact with blood from an infected person. Baby boomers could have gotten infected from medical equipment or procedures before universal precautions and infection control procedures were adopted. Others could have gotten infected from contaminated blood and blood products before widespread screening virtually eliminated the virus from the blood supply by 1992. Sharing needles or equipment used to prepare or inject drugs, even if only once in the past, could spread hepatitis C.

 Anyone with chronic hepatitis C will need to be closely monitored by their doctor. It is advised for them to avoid alcohol as it can cause further damage to the liver. They will also need to inform their doctor or pharmacist that they have hepatitis C before taking a prescription medication, supplements, or over-the-counter medications as they could potentially harm the liver. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that up to one out of four people who contract the hepatitis C virus will eventually be cured from the condition without treatment. For these people, hepatitis C will be a short-term acute infection that goes away without treatment. 

For most people, however, acute hepatitis C will develop into a chronic infection that does require treatment. Since the virus often doesn’t have symptoms until after liver damage has taken place, it’s important to get tested for it if you think you might have been exposed. 

In the past, chronic hepatitis C was treated with a combination of ribavirin and interferon. Rather than directly attacking the virus, these drugs worked by strengthening your immune system. The immune system would then kill the virus. The goal of treatment was to rid your body of the virus. 

However, since 2011, the Food and Drug Administration has approved many antivirals that attack hepatitis C more directly. These drugs have much better success rates than older treatments. 

All of these drug combinations are protease inhibitors. This means they prevent the virus from getting the proteins it needs to reproduce. Over a period of time, usually 12 to 24 weeks, this causes the virus to die out and clear from your system. 

 For all of the protease inhibitor drugs, the goal of hepatitis C treatment is sustained virologic response, or SVR. SVR means that the amount of hepatitis virus in your system is so low that it can’t be detected 12 weeks after you finish treatment. If you achieve SVR after treatment, you can say that your hepatitis C infection is cured. 

And one last note…  

Most people with hepatitis C do not know they are infected. Since many people can live with hepatitis C for decades without symptoms or feeling sick, testing is critical so those who are infected can get treated and cured.  The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is to get tested. A blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test, can tell if a person has ever been infected with the hepatitis C virus. This test looks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. 

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. 

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible! 

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. 

 Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com