Newsweek‘s Sarah Kliff looked into hepatitis C, a virus which can be dormant for decades then emerge to cause liver fibrosis and cirrhosis. It affects between 2.7 million and 3.9 million Americans, two-thirds of them baby boomers.
The virus is transferred through contact with infected blood, typically through intravenous drug use or transplants or blood transfusions that occurred before 1992, the year when officials started screening blood for the disease. Because it can remain dormant for so long, many boomers who contracted the disease during their free and easy youth are just starting to show symptoms.
“Even though Boomers moved on with their lives, they could be living with an infection that happened many years ago,” says John W. Ward, division director for the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Viral Hepatitis. “Now, they’re aging into a period of their lives when Hepatitis C could become manifest through physical symptoms.” One study published last May estimates that, in the next 20 years, total medical costs for Hepatitis C patients will nearly triple, from $30 to $85 billion.
Many don’t even know they have the disease, and Kliff writes that general public awareness is lagging.
Despite affecting 1 percent of the population, hepatitis C remains a disease generally misunderstood by the general public with little in financial commitments from the federal government. The CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, and Tuberculosis Prevention had a budget of almost $1 billion for 2008. Only 2 percent of that was allocated to hepatitis B and hepatitis C despite both viruses being five times more prevalent.
Because of the stigma associated with a virus often linked to drug use that causes symptoms (chronic liver disease) often associated with alcohol abuse, officials have found it tricky to convince now-affluent and settled boomers to come to terms with their wild past and acknowledge that they may have exposed themselves to the virus. To get past those barriers, officials have even considered comprehensive age-based screening requirements, Kliff writes.
The CDC is considering a blanket, age-based screening recommendation. “We’re launching studies to see if it’s feasible and makes sense,” says Ward, the CDC official. “Just like everyone over 50 should have a check for colon cancer, it might fit into an age-based checklist of preventative services.”
From the Institute of Medicine: Hepatitis and Liver Cancer: A National Strategy for Prevention and Control of Hepatitis B and C (PDF)