Medical News Today: What is the relation between baby boomers and hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by the hepatitis C virus. Hepatitis C is transferred through the blood, with most cases of infection resulting from drug use and sharing needles.

Baby boomers — those born between 1945 and 1965 — make up 80 percent of all chronic hepatitis C cases in the United States, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Hepatitis C can be a short-term condition for some people, but for 70–85 percent, it becomes a chronic, long-term infection.

Hepatitis C can go undiagnosed for a long time and can lead to serious health consequences.

In this article, we take a look at the link between baby boomers and hepatitis C. We also examine what the risks are, and when people should be tested for the condition.

Why should baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C?

Senior baby boomer getting tested for hepatitis C while doctor discusses treatment.
Baby boomers are advised to get tested for hepatitis C due to high rates of the disease within this age group.

Despite the high number of baby boomers with hepatitis C in the U.S., most people with the infection are not aware that they have it.

Undiagnosed hepatitis C is a significant issue, as the disease can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death.

For these reasons, in 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended a one-time hepatitis C screening for all adults within the baby boomer age bracket.


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Reason for high rates of hepatitis C among baby boomers

The high rate of hepatitis C among baby boomers is probably the result of some medical practices of the past.

A 2016 study published in The Lancet found that most of the spread of hepatitis C occurred roughly between 1940 and 1965.

The researchers concluded that this spread likely occurred in hospitals, rather than as a result of lifestyle choices as many people thought.

Another article from the same edition of The Lancet notes that during the highest infection period from 1945 to 1965, glass and metal syringes were commonly reused, which would provide plenty of opportunity for infection.

The authors wrote: “The medical community can now take its share of the responsibility for hepatitis C virus infection.”

These findings show a completely different pattern to what is seen today, where most new hepatitis C infections are linked to drug use. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around one-third of injectable drug users aged 18–30 have hepatitis C. This number rises to 70–90 percent in older and former users.

These different causes of infection between past and present explain why many baby boomers might feel stigmatized by the condition. Some may not even consider themselves to be at risk in the first place.

Myths and stigma about the connection

Depressed and lonely baby boomer mature woman.
The social stigma around hepatitis C may cause depression and loneliness in those affected.

The social stigma surrounding hepatitis C can be “tremendous,” according to a 2013 review in the World Journal of Gastroenterology. This stigma is primarily due to hepatitis C’s associations with drug use and HIV.

The stigma can cause depression and alienation, and people may be less likely to seek screening and treatment as a result.

The fact that there is so much stigma surrounding hepatitis C is tragic considering that, according to the authors of the review, up to 3 percent of the world’s population is affected by hepatitis C. Of this number, 20 to 40 percent go on to develop complications that can lead to liver failure and death.

Since the 1980s, when the cure rate was just 6 percent, treatment today means that the survival rate is now around 80–90 percent. However, many people might not know this fact. Instead, they may believe that hepatitis C remains largely “untreatable.”

When it comes to baby boomers, the stigma is not only tragic in its consequences but also unjustified. Although drug use has been the leading cause of hepatitis C infection in recent times, research shows the spread of the disease between the 1940s and 1960s was likely due to the poor medical practices of the time.

Due to the stigma surrounding hepatitis C, some baby boomers who have never used drugs may refuse to consider themselves at risk or undergo testing. What is more, those who do find that they have the condition are likely to experience shock, confusion, fear, and shame.

It is vital to understand that the high hepatitis C rates in baby boomers are not a reflection of lifestyle choices or a person’s moral character, but the result of medical practices of the day.

It is also essential that everyone living with hepatitis C understands that the condition is treatable and curable with modern medicine.


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Testing

A simple blood test is the first step in testing for hepatitis C.

Once the blood has been drawn, it is tested for the antibodies that fight the hepatitis C virus. If no antibodies are discovered, the test will be negative, and the person tested does not have hepatitis C.

If the antibodies are found, the test will be positive. This means that the person being tested has had the hepatitis C virus at some point in their life, although they may not have it anymore.

If a person receives a positive result on a hepatitis C antibody test, they will need follow-up blood tests to identify whether or not they still have the hepatitis C virus and, if so, how active it is.

If the hepatitis C virus is identified, treatment is the next step.

Treatment

mature baby boomer man checking bottles of medication pills.
Treatment for HCV may involve taking a course of pills for 12 weeks.

Hepatitis C was once considered to be an almost-incurable disease. However, progress in modern medicine means that doctors can now cure almost all cases of the disease and with much less fuss than ever before.

According to the 2013 review in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, the original hepatitis C treatment involved three injections per week over a 48-week period. The treatment plan only had a cure rate of 6 percent.

Today, treatment consists of a course of pills to be taken daily for 12 weeks. The cure rate stands at around 90 percent.


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Takeaway

Baby boomers are at a vastly increased risk of experiencing hepatitis C than other generations. Some research suggests that 80 percent of people who have hepatitis C in the U.S. are baby boomers.

Today, hepatitis C is mostly spread by sharing injectable drug equipment, but this has not always been the case. Research suggests that most of the baby boomers who have hepatitis C acquired the disease in hospitals, as a result of unsound medical practices.

The association of hepatitis C with drug use is the source of a lot of stigma and misunderstanding. This stigma can be traumatic for people and may prevent them from seeking treatment or being tested for the disease.

Because many baby boomers believe that hepatitis C is spread through the misuse of drugs and needles, they may not have any reason to think they are at risk.

Although the stigma surrounding hepatitis C can be very harmful, it should not stand in the way of people seeking out testing and treatment.

While hepatitis C treatments were once ineffective and inconvenient, modern treatments now offer a cure rate of up to 90 percent.

It is essential for everyone in an at-risk group to understand that hepatitis C can be treated effectively by modern medicine.

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