More than three million Americans already have the liver disease Hepatitis C, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in 30 baby boomers have it – and most do not know it. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.
A new proposal by health officials to get all baby boomers tested for hepatitis C may face some pushback from the very generation it’s intended to help.
Early comments from those born between 1945 and 1965 reveal some skepticism about the call for a one-time blood test for everyone to detect the liver-wrecking virus, recommended last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’d be much more concerned if I had some risk factors,” groused one boomer on an msnbc.com website, while another asked government health officials to explain “how a whole generation could be infected?”
Easy, responded CDC officials, who noted that baby boomers already account for 2 million of the 3.2 million people infected with the blood-borne virus, amounting to 1 in every 30 people in that age group.
Many, many more boomers likely don’t know that they’re infected, primarily because they’ve never been tested and don’t believe they fall in traditional high-risk groups, said Dr. John Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC center that monitors the disease.
“For this generation, we feel that many people don’t know the exposures that could have resulted in transmission,” he said.
Most people understand that hepatitis C is spread by contact with contaminated blood or organs and unsafe practices such as injection drug use.
They may even understand that the risk was much higher before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the U.S.
But, Ward says, it’s not widely known or appreciated that there may have been other ways to become infected without knowing it before hepatitis C was identified in 1989.
“In the period of time before the virus was discovered, in the 1970s and 1980s, there were just more exposures,” he said. “It almost certainly happened more back then.”
In addition to transmission through blood and organ donations, the virus frequently was transmitted accidentally through other routine health care settings and treatments, Ward said.
But it also may have been transmitted through tattoos, through sharing toothbrushes or sharing razors, even during manicures and pedicures. Any action that results in even microscopic amounts of blood can pass on the virus.
All it takes is a one-time exposure, noted Ward. Because it might have occurred decades ago, some boomers might not remember the event -- or they might want to forget it.
“People did get infected through injection drug use and some people don’t want to admit that,” he said. Others could have been infected while using other drugs, such as cocaine, in which a shared appliance came in contact with mucous membranes and blood. Hepatitis C can also be spread sexually.
The bottom line, said Ward, is that getting tested could lead an estimated 800,000 baby boomers to get treatment for hepatitis C and save some 120,000 lives.
New treatments can cure up to 75 percent of hepatitis C cases and avoid a leading cause of liver cancer.
As it stands now, more than 15,000 people a year die from hepatitis-related conditions. The virus is the leading cause of liver transplants and the fastest-rising cause of all cancer-related deaths, according to the CDC.
Boomers who want to comment on the plan will get a chance starting Tuesday at www.regulations.gov, docket number CDC-2012-0005. Comments will be accepted through June 8 and a decision about the proposal will be made later this year.
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