The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta have issued a new recommendation that all people born in the US between 1945 and 1965 be screened at least once for hepatitis C infection. Previous guidelines recommended screening only people who were at special risk. Why the change of heart?
Consider the following:
- Between 3 and 4 million Americans have hepatitis C
- Because most people experience no symptoms until late in the infection, they don’t even know they’re infected
- 75% of people infected are baby boomers
- The number of deaths from the disease is increasing, but new treatments offer hope for a complete cure in 75% of patients
- Screening is expected to diagnose another 800,000 infected people and may save more than 120,000 lives
What is hepatitis C and how does it spread?
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that primarily affects the liver, causing chronic liver disease, liver failure, and liver cancer. It’s the leading reason for liver transplantation in the US. The virus can spread in several ways:
- Through a contaminated needle
- From a blood transfusion (although this risk has plummeted now that the blood supply is now thoroughly screened)
- Perinatally, from an infected mother to her fetus
- Sexually, via unprotected intercourse
What are the symptoms of hepatitis C?
Some people may develop nonspecific, flu-like symptoms when they first acquire the virus, but most will have no symptoms at all. When this occurs, hepatitis C can then smolder quietly for years until a patient presents symptoms of advanced liver disease.
What is the screening process?
Screening for hepatitis C is easy; it’s a simple blood test. The laboratory will screen your blood for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. If none are found, you’re in the clear. If antibodies are present, however, then additional blood tests will be necessary. Your primary care provider will then refer you to the proper specialist for the latest and most effective care.
So, if you’re a baby boomer, ask your health care provider to order a hepatitis C antibody test. You may save your own life, and protect those you love most as well.