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Born between '45 and '65? Get tested for hepatitis C, says CDC

Lenny Ignelzi
Associated Press

A silent epidemic in the baby-boomer generation has health officials urging widespread testing. It’s hepatitis C, which can quietly infect your liver for years, leaving tiny scars but without showing any symptoms. 

Left untreated, you end up with cancer or in need of a transplant.

Now, a new battery of tests and better treatments are arriving, just as boomers reach an age when their livers could suddenly fail.

Traditionally, hepatitis C has plagued people with HIV, or those who used needle-injection drugs such as heroin.

But last summer, the federal Centers for Disease Control began recommending that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 should get tested at least once as part of a routine physical. For reasons they say are not well-understood, three-quarters of all adults infected are in that age-group.

Hepatitis C is a blood-born virus that spreads via blood contact. Speculation focuses on multiple culprits:

  • There was more drug experimentation when this cohort was coming of age, from the late 1960s into the 80s.
  • The blood supply for medical use wasn't screened for hepatitis C until 1992, so anyone who had any sort of blood transfusion or an organ transplant, could have been infected.
  • Many people served in Vietnam, where they might have been exposed.

Most people who have the disease don’t know it, and those who acquired it unwittingly also might have spread it unwittingly.
"Blood-borne pathogens and universal precautions have changed throughout our lifetimes, and so potentially somebody could have been exposed at some point" through any sort of contact with the blood of an infected person, says Anne Brenner, manager of the hepatitis prevention program at the Washington Department of Health.

In the past year, a new rapid test that utilizes a finger-prick became available on the market. It’s targeted at people who don't have health insurance and may not get routine physicals. It's available now in King County, and by June, it should roll out in other communities in Washington.

However,new guidelines suggest that a positive test from the finger-prick, which only takes 20 minutes to process, should be followed up with a blood test, because the rapid test doesn't confirm whether someone has active hepatitis C.

Unfortunately, the traditional treatment for hepatitis C has been considered arduous. It involves weekly transfusions for three to six months, and often leaves patients too exhausted to work.

The good news is two new drugs that shorten the treatment and reduce side effects were recently approved. And even better medications are likely to get federal approval by next year, making it more worthwhile to get tested.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.