Infectious disease experts tell us there is a hidden epidemic of viral liver infections in the United States. The epidemic is hepatitis C, and millions of baby boomers likely have been infected for decades without knowing it.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released final recommendations for routine screening of all people born between 1945 and 1965. It is estimated that this group accounts for 75 percent of all hepatitis C infections in the United States.
The basis for this new screening recommendation is threefold. First, the rate of undiagnosed hepatitis C is high, with about 3 million Americans unaware they are infected.
Second, the complications of chronic hepatitis C are significant and potentially life-threatening, such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. Finally, newer treatments recently have become available that can provide a cure for the infection.
Also, testing – which consists of a one-time blood test – is simple and effective in detecting evidence of viral infection.
Hepatitis C is a virus which infects the liver and commonly persists as a chronic infection. Often the infected person is unaware of the disease because symptoms are rare in the early stages.
The danger of hepatitis C is that it produces liver damage, often slowly over time. Through decades, this may lead to permanent liver scarring known as cirrhosis. The liver damage may be accelerated if infection is accompanied by other sources of liver toxicity, such as may result from consumption of alcohol.
Cirrhosis may proceed to liver failure, for which the only effective treatment is liver transplant. Also, people with hepatitis C are at increased risk for liver cancer.
Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted through contact with infected blood. The main risks are injection drug use or having received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992, when universal screening of the blood supply was initiated.
According to the CDC, other risk factors include being born to a hepatitis C-infected mother, intranasal drug use, acquiring a tattoo in an unregulated establishment or having been stuck by a needle such as in a health-care occupation.
It is estimated that more than 3 percent of those born between 1945 and 1965 are or have been infected. Hence the recommendation for universal screening in this age group.
Treatment options do exist that can produce a viral cure. In addition to considering medical treatment, people with hepatitis C infection are counseled to maintain a healthy weight, avoid significant alcohol consumption and avoid certain medications (including herbal supplements and over-the-counter medications) that can potentially harm the liver. Infected people should also be vaccinated to prevent other forms of liver infection.
The CDC recommends that people infected with hepatitis C should not donate blood, tissue or semen and should not share appliances that might come into contact with blood such as toothbrushes, razors or nail clippers.
Talk to your doctor to see if you should be tested.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.