Understanding Hepatitis C

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Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all Baby Boomers (born 1945–1965) get tested for Hepatitis C.  WHY?

3.5 million people in the U.S. have Hepatitis C. It is a contagious viral liver disease and is the most common disease spread by contaminated blood in the U.S. People born 1945-1965 are 5 times more likely than any other age group to have Hepatitis C. Many Baby Boomers have been infected for 20 years or more and about half don’t know they have it. Most have no symptoms. Each year, more people die from Hepatitis C than HIV.

No one is 100% sure why Boomers are at higher risk. Since the Hepatitis C virus was only discovered in 1989, it’s likely that most Boomers were infected before that time and may only be showing symptoms now. In fact, donated blood was not screened for Hepatitis C until 1992. According to the CDC, many Boomers were infected in the 70’s and 80’s when infection control standards were not what they are today.

There are many ways to get Hepatitis C. Here are a few examples. Infection from:

  • Unsterilized tools at tattoo parlors or by sharing personal items that have infected blood, like shaving razors or toothbrushes.
  • Recreational drug use, like sharing cocaine straws or intravenous needles
  • Blood transfusions, poorly sterilized medical equipment, organ donations, or blood products before 1992.

I certainly didn’t know I had it until an annual lab report indicated a need for further testing. No symptoms: no hint, not a clue. Then, BOOM. Hep C was a deadly part of my world.

For most, Hepatitis C becomes a chronic infection, meaning the virus stays in the body for many years. Chronic Hepatitis C can eventually lead to serious liver problems such as scarring, cirrhosis, or cancer of the liver, and in some cases, death. Liver damage is unpredictable, advancing slowly in some people and quickly in others. When symptoms are discovered, Hep C should be treated immediately.

If the liver is inflamed, tender, or enlarged, it is unable to function normally. As a result, toxins that should be filtered out by the liver build up in the body; Certain nutrients are not processed and stored as they should be.

My diagnosis was a shock.  But, the course of treatment was simple – one pill a day.  The side effects were headaches and exhaustion. I slept a lot.

The toughest part was fear. Fear of liver impairment, death, and social judgment.  Having already survived job relocations, divorce, the death of my immediate family, and cancer, etc. I felt fairly sure not much would shake me. Loss of liver function?  That’s just nasty. My diagnosis awoke the fear of living impaired which, for me, was greater than the fear of death.

Then there was my concern about social judgment.  Hepatitis C, some said, “isn’t that caused by drugs, tattoos, needles, and unprotected sex?” Street wisdom said “yes.”  If the physician said differently, I didn’t hear her.  I hadn’t done those things – but who would believe me?

The simple truth is – one in 30 Boomers has Hep C and most don’t know it.  Here’s why it’s important to get tested: so you can know for sure because it can be cured.

Opening up about my Hepatitis C diagnosis was a relief.  With support, I began to work towards a more positive future.  The first step was reaching out to others.

It was incredibly important and valuable for me to have someone to turn to for support when I was diagnosed. Being able to share with and vent to my husband, who was honest and non-judgmental in return, made the treatment journey easier. Knowing I had a safe and confidential person to share thoughts, feelings, and experiences related to the diagnosis, treatment, and recovery gave me perspective and strength.

The support of friends was much more than I expected – they gave me tips and guidance on how to use my faith to stay positive.  They also helped me end my pity party.

Today’s Hep C treatments have cure rates of around 95%. Medical advances have made a huge difference: it’s estimated that in the past few years more people have been treated and cured of Hepatitis C than in the previous decade.

Hepatitis C testing is not part of routine blood work. You have to ask for it specifically. It requires a blood test and most insurance plans cover one-time Hepatitis C testing for Boomers.

Boomers, it’s time to get tested. If you know someone born 1945–1965, get the word out.  Ask your health care team questions about any concerns or challenges you may be having.

After treatment, I’ve had follow-up lab tests to see if I was cured. Cured means the Hepatitis C virus is not detected in the blood when measured 3 months after treatment is completed.

Once cured, I follow my health care provider’s advice about how to reduce the risk of reinfection and live a healthy lifestyle.

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