CDC proposes one-time test for hepatitis C for baby boomers

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, anyone born from 1945 to 1965 should get tested for hepatitis C.

The recent increase in deaths among baby boomers in the United States has created an emphasis in Canada on diagnosing and treating the disease. In fact, doctors are recommending that boomers get tested for it at least once.

Why the sudden increase of cases? Boomers grew up in the 60s experimental drug culture before the disease was on anyone’s radar, experts say. Which means that many who experimented with drugs just once or twice could have been infected without knowing it.

Hepatitis C is most commonly contracted through infected needles. But many boomers, and Canadians in general, may have contracted hepatitis C from blood transfusions prior to the 1990s, when donated blood wasn’t tested for the disease.

If left untreated, it can lead to inflammation of the liver, organ scarring, cirrhosis of the liver and even liver cancer.

Symptoms often don’t occur until there is liver failure (which occurs 20 to 30 years after originally contracting hepatitis C). Many boomers are just coming to realize they have the disease, which accounts for the recent increase in diagnosis.

Toronto Western Hospital’s Dr. David Wong, director of the liver clinic, told the CBC, “They’re now trying to say if you’re born between 1945 and 1965 — that is a baby boomer — you actually have a reasonable chance of having hepatitis C in North America. All of those people should routinely get hep C testing at least once.”

The death count is on the rise, surpassing the number of deaths from HIV. In the US, 15,000 deaths were caused by hepatitis C, while 13,000 were caused by HIV.

The American Center for Disease Control and Prevention notes that three per cent of baby boomers are infected, and most are unaware that the disease is causing damage.

One of these boomers is Shane Carr of Muskoka, who believes he contracted the disease 26 years ago after a doctor in Mexico gave him an injection using a dirty needle. He had always been healthy, and only found out he had contracted it last year after his insurance company required a blood test.

“My liver was basically scarred completely and I was in very grave condition,” he told CBC.

Carr is being treated by Wong with an expensive new drug called telaprevir that has a cure rate of about 70 per cent. The side effects include anemia, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal problems, but they are much cheaper and easier to acquire than a liver transplant for those in advanced stages of the disease. About 30 per cent of people who need a transplant die while waiting for a liver. Wong notes that better drugs will likely be available in the next two to three years.

In Ontario, hepatitis C is the leading cause of premature death from infectious disease. Nearly a quarter of a million Canadians have contracted it.

Sources: Health Canada, CBC, CDC, Yahoo

Photo © O Driscoll

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