Hepatitis C – a growing threat putting a new generation at risk

Many of us have seen the commercials on television stating the fact, “Did you know people born from 1945-1965 have the highest rate of hepatitis C but most don’t know they’re infected? “

This is a very sobering fact stated from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on this disease.  The commercials go on to say that “someone with hepatitis C can live for decades without any symptoms but over time the disease can cause serious health problems.” 

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This should get anyone’s attention that is considered a “baby boomer” born during those years.   All baby boomers should get a blood test from their doctor to determine if they are infected with hepatitis C or not. 

New generation being impacted by hepatitis C

But now, new reports from the CDC are warning new hepatitis C infections in the U.S. nearly tripled over five years, reaching a 15-year high, rising from 850 new cases in 2010 to 2,436 in 2015.  And it is no longer primarily baby boomers that are being affected.  The age group impacted the most from these new infections is those aged 20-29 years.  It is believed to be stemmed from the growing use of injected drugs linked to the current opioid epidemic. 

Many people may not realize but more Americans die from hepatitis C than any other infections disease as reported by the CDC.  In 2015, almost 20,000 Americans died from hepatitis C-related causes, most who were age 55 and older.  Unfortunately, there is no vaccine at this time to prevent hepatitis C. 

What is Hepatitis C?

The word “hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver.  The reason why it is called “hepatitis C” is because there are three different types of hepatitis – Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C – each caused by three different viruses.  Hepatitis is the name of a family of a viral infection affecting the liver.  Each of the different types has a different mode of transportation and can affect the liver in their own unique way.  Those with hepatitis A can usually improve without treatment whereas hepatitis B and C can be either acute or chronic. Only hepatitis A and B have vaccines available to prevent them.

How is it spread?

Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and is usually spread through contact with infected blood from a person with the hepatitis C virus.  Here are ways it can be contracted or spread:

·      Before 1992 when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, it was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.

·      From mother to baby during childbirth

·      Sex with an infected person

·      Sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs

·      Needlestick injuries in health care settings

·      Sharing personal care items from an infected person that could have come into contact with their blood such as razors or toothbrushes.

·      Possibly from getting a tattoo or piercing if poor infection-control practices are used

Hepatitis C is not spread by sharing eating utensils, hugging, kissing, holding hands, coughing, breastfeeding, or sneezing and is not spread through food or water.

How does hepatitis C affect someone?

Hepatitis C can lead to damage of the liver, the largest organ in the body.  This important organ helps the body digest food, store energy, and remove toxic materials we don’t need.   Hepatitis C can cause serious long-term health problems of the liver including liver failure, liver cancer, or even death.  Hepatitis C is the leading cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the U.S.  There are approximately 19,000 people who die every year due to Hepatitis C related liver disease.

Why are baby boomers at the greatest risk?

It is not completely understood why baby boomers or those born from 1945-1965 have the highest rates of hepatitis C.   Even though anyone is at risk of getting hepatitis C, it is the baby boom generation who are six times more likely to have hepatitis C as 3 in 4 people with the disease were born during that time frame.

One reason why Hepatitis C may be more common for this generation is that transmission of hepatitis C was highest during the 1960’s through the 1980’s.

Symptoms of hepatitis C

There are two types of hepatitis C – acute and chronic.  About 70-80% of those with acute hepatitis C do not have symptoms but the rest will have some of the following symptoms:

·      Fever

·      Fatigue

·      Loss of appetite

·      Nausea and vomiting

·      Abdominal pain

·      Dark urine

·      Clay-colored bowel movements

·      Joint pain

·      Jaundice (yellow skin or whites of the eyes)

People with chronic hepatitis C usually do not have symptoms.  It is not until the liver has had been damaged from the disease, which can take years, will there be any symptoms.

How is a person tested for hepatitis C?

A blood test called a hepatitis C antibody test can be done at a doctor’s office which looks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus.  Antibodies are chemicals released into the bloodstream when someone is infected. 

It is highly recommended for anyone born from 1945-1965 to be tested for hepatitis C.

Can both acute and chronic hepatitis C be treated?

Yes, both types can be treated.  In about 25% of people with acute hepatitis C, will have the disease clear up on its own.  For the other 75%, they will be given the same medication that is used to treat chronic hepatitis C.

Chronic hepatitis C can be treated with several different medications including some new ones that are more effective with fewer side effects. 

Anyone with chronic hepatitis C will need to be closely monitored by their doctor.  It is advised for them to avoid alcohol as it can cause further damage to the liver.  They will also need to inform their doctor or pharmacist that they have hepatitis C before taking a prescription medication, supplements, or over-the-counter medications as they could potentially harm the liver.