A long sleeping epidemic is waking like a bear among baby boomers in the United States and causing the Centers of Disease Control to urge all people born 1945 through 1965 be tested for hepatitis C.
According to CDC reports, an estimated 3.5 million people in the U.S. — 75 percent ranging from 47 to 67 — have the virus. But most do not know it.
About 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die every year from hepatitis C-related liver disease such as liver cancer and cirrhosis.
It is the fastest rising cause of liver cancer and the leading reason for liver transplants in the United States.
Canned quote from CDC to be replaced Monday:
“Because hepatitis C has few noticeable symptoms, many of those who are infected have no idea that the virus has been slowly damaging their livers. Testing is the only way to identify the millions of Americans who have the virus, and is the first step in stopping this epidemic in its tracks,” said Bryuce Smith, lead health scientist of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis.
A nationwide recommendation for all baby boomers to get a one-time hepatitis C test was made by the federal agency last month. Officials believe more than 800,000 new cases will be identified and nearly 120,000 deaths will be prevented.
Dr. Eugene R. Schiff, director of the Schiff Center for Liver Disease at the University of Miami School of Medicine and vice president of the Chronic Liver Disease Foundation, said the majority of baby boomers infected were teenagers and young adults during the ’60s and ’70s.
“These were mainstream Americans who may have experimented with drugs, engaged in free love, were injured in the military … They had no idea they were picking up an insidious, notoriously chronic virus,” Schiff said.
Decades can pass before the virus shows any obvious signs. It is only detected by a blood test specific for the infection. The virus is transmitted when the contaminated blood of an infected person is introduced in the broken skin of another person.
Transmission modes include person to person during medical care, shared intravenous needles primarily between needle drug users, rough or anal sex, and from mother to newborn at childbirth.
Until July 1992, when hepatitis C was identified and strict blood screenings were put into place, the virus was primarily spread through blood transfusions or organ transplants. Rarely is it transmitted by sharing toothbrushes or shaving razors but the possibility exists.
Hepatitis C is not contracted through eating utensils, coughing, sneezing, kisses, hugs, breast feeding, food or drinks.
Schiff, co-editor of Schiff’s Diseases of the Liver and author of more than 200 articles, books and chapters in books about liver disease and related topics, said one-time testing for the infection should be on the medical “to do list” of every baby boomer.
“Right now, the CDC wants the group with the most risk to be tested. But it’s the group that most won’t admit that they have any risk factor,” Schiff said. “They are afraid to put the past out there.”
Some baby boomers might not even remember their carefree, youthful behaviors from decades past. Schiff said that’s why the CDC and physicians are supporting “test and treat” care with very few questions asked.