A latent legacy of baby boomers’ youthful antics could be hepatitis C. The number of boomers dying from a “silent epidemic” of hepatitis C infections is increasing so quickly that federal officials are planning a nationwide push for widespread testing. Seventy-five percent of the estimated 3.2 million people who have chronic hepatitis C — and a similar number of those who die from the ailment are baby boomers. Hepatitis C deaths nearly doubled between 1999 and 2007 to more than 15,000, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study. Hepatitis C is the primary infectious cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and is the most common reason for liver transplants, according to the CDC. In 2007, deaths from the disease surpassed those caused by HIV, and the numbers are expected to increase.
Baby boomers typically became infected in their teens and 20s, either via blood transfusions or with experimental injection drug use. Hepatitis C is often asymptomatic while it damages the liver, according to the CDC. “It’s a bold action that’s become necessary because there’s a large population that’s unaware of their illness, becoming ill, and dying in an era of effective treatment,” said John W. Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC.
One in 30 baby boomers have hepatitis C, according to the CDC. A single test of the members of that generation has the potential to identify 800,000 people with hepatitis C, which would prevent liver cancer and perhaps save 120,000 lives. “We believe this cost-effective public health approach can help protect the health of an entire generation of Americans,” Ward said. “It’s the fastest-growing cause of death in the U.S. and hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer here. “Most cancer deaths are going down and this is one of the few that continues to escalate.”
“Many baby boomers have a potentially dangerous ‘it’s not me’ mentality about hepatitis C, and this survey underscores how poorly most people in that generation understand that risk factors do apply to them,” said Ira M. Jacobson, M.D., AGAF, chief, division of gastroenterology and hepatology and professor of medicine, The Joan Sanford I. Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and physician co-advisor to the , American Gastroenterological Association’s (AGA) I.D. Hep C campaign. “Given the potentially deadly consequences of allowing hepatitis C to go undiagnosed, the AGA urges all baby boomers to talk to their doctors about getting tested.”
“The disease can’t be treated if people don’t know they are infected. With treatment, the chance of a cure is greater than ever,” said Michael Ryan, M.D., clinical professor of medicine, Eastern Virginia Medical School, practicing gastroenterologist with Digestive and Liver Disease Specialists of Norfolk, VA, and physician co-advisor to AGA’s I.D. Hep C campaign. “I see every day the devastation hepatitis C can cause, especially to those who have lived with the disease for years without knowing it. Baby boomers shouldn’t wait – they should talk to their doctors today about getting this simple test.”