As the youngest of its generation turns 50 this year, AARP has declared 2014 the Year of the Boomer.
There are many ways in which boomers’ contributions to society can be recognized and celebrated. But if you are one of the 77 million Americans born after the Second World War, your “special year” would take on greater meaning if you were to pause and think about your liver health.
Specifically, the American Liver Foundation is appealing to you to take the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and get tested for hepatitis C.
Why, you may be thinking, are you being asked to do this? The facts speak for themselves: Anyone can get hepatitis C, but baby boomers are five times more likely to be infected.
Of all the people in the United States who have hepatitis C, more than 75 percent were born between 1945 and 1965.
Over all, considering that an estimated 3.2 million people have hepatitis C in the United States, the disease has been described as an unrecognized health crisis.
There are vaccines available for the hepatitis A and B viruses, but no vaccine is available yet to prevent hepatitis C. So testing for hepatitis C is critical to finding and treating the disease at its earliest stages.
Hepatitis C – the “silent epidemic”
Finding those infected with the disease is actually an enormous problem. It can take decades for symptoms to appear. During that time, people often have no idea they are infected. In fact, 75 percent of people who are infected with the virus do not know that they have it.
The longer the virus goes undetected, the greater a person’s risk of developing serious liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Still, it’s useful to know what symptoms to look for. Apart from jaundice, you should take special notice if you’re progressively feeling very tired, experiencing joint pain, suffer bouts of nausea or if your urine is dark.
Why is the baby boom generation so susceptible?
No one can pinpoint specific reasons why this group has the highest rate of infection.
One reason is that blood and blood products were not screened for hepatitis C until 1992. That’s significant because the virus is transmitted through direct contact with contaminated blood. So people who received blood transfusions or other invasive medical procedures before that time could have been exposed.
And lifestyle choices are a factor. Boomers came of age before public awareness about the risks of shared needles and unprotected sex.
What does the test involve?
The blood test your doctor should order is called the hepatitis C antibody test. Antibodies are made by your body to battle an infection. They are released into the bloodstream when someone gets infected and can persist for decades, even if you clear the disease.
The test will show if you have ever been infected, but not if you’re still infected. If it’s positive, it doesn’t mean you have the disease, only that you were exposed at some point in your life. Once you’re infected, you will always have antibodies in your blood. If the antibody is positive, additional blood work should be done to confirm if you have active hepatitis C.
When you get tested, you should ask your doctor when and how you will find out your results. The test results usually take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to come back. A new rapid test is available in some health clinics.
The Foundation endorses the call for wider testing
Tom Nealon, national board chair of the American Liver Foundation, says the organization fully endorses wide-spread testing.
“The ability to screen at-risk populations and identify those infected at the earliest possible stages underscores the importance of being proactive,” he says. “As about 60 to 70 percent of people who carry the virus go on to develop chronic liver disease, we hope that this effort continues to gain momentum across the nation.”
Mr. Nealon also welcomes the growing support from other quarters for testing.
“We believe more people will be mobilized to check for hepatitis C as the message is relayed by government, the medical community and other interested parties,” he says. “The Foundation was grateful when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force last summer mirrored the recommendation. And we congratulate New York for being the first state to pass a law requiring hospitals and health service providers to provide free hepatitis C screenings for the 50-plus population. We urge other states to follow.”
Good news: Treatment is constantly being improved
It is an exciting time in the area of drug treatments. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved two new drugs that are considered game changers in the treatment of chronic hepatitis C infections. Several other medications are in late stages of development, including an oral medication that can be used without combining treatment with interferon.
Sovaldi, known generically as sofosbuvir,was approved December 6, 2013, for use in combination with other anti-viral agents, to treat several different genotypes of hepatitis C, including the most common type - genotype 1. The medication is more easily tolerated and less toxic than some traditional therapies and can be taken in pill form once a day for a much shorter period of time.
In clinical trials, Sovaldi, in combination with other medications, cured the majority of cases of hepatitis C in as little as 12 weeks and reduced or eliminated the need for interferon injections in some patients.
Olysio, known generically as simeprevir, was approved November 22, 2013, for use in combination with other anti-viral medications to treat genotype 1 hepatitis C. It is administered as a once-a-day oral treatment combined with ribavirin and interferon for a course of up to 24 weeks.
Mr. Nealon says the Foundation is excited about these breakthroughs and welcomes ongoing research.
“This is the beginning of a new, gentler, era in the treatment of hepatitis C,” he states. “We know that thousands of patients have been awaiting new, less invasive treatment options and this is exciting news. But we are concerned that millions of cases of infections remain undetected and therefore untreated.”
The legacy of the Year of the Boomer
As for 2014 being the Year of the Boomer and the Foundation’s hope that this helps to draw attention to the hidden dangers of hepatitis C, Mr. Nealon sums it up best. “Starting now, we hope that every member of this large sector of our society will be made aware of why it is imperative to be tested and that they follow up and get screened. That would be a most worthwhile legacy for this high-profile year.”
The Foundation’s “Hep C123” program focuses on three key factors: diagnosis, treatment and support. It features a dedicated hepatitis C Helpline, telephone support groups and a physician locator.
When you “Enroll in Hep C 123” by filling out a brief online form, you’ll receive “The 123s of Hep C,” a quarterly education series conveniently sent via email.