Paging Dr. Frischer: Hepatitis C

Recently, a number of my patients have been mentioning to me a commercial they have seen, instructing them to get a blood test for Hepatitis C.

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Indeed, Hepatitis C has been all over the media lately. As a proud Baby Boomer (those of us who were born between 1945 and 1965), I was surprised to find that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is now recommending that all Baby Boomers be tested for Hepatitis C. One in 30 of us have the virus, and most are unaware of it.

Why has this become so important? Science has finally caught up with Hepatitis C, and there is actually a cure! Testing and treating can now make a huge difference.

Hepatitis C is a serious, blood borne infection, and an estimated 3.2 million Americans are living with it. Many have had it for years, or even decades, without any obvious outward symptoms. Although it can be a quiet disease, if left untreated, it may be causing serious damage to the liver, including cirrhosis, liver failure, or even cancer. Currently, there are more deaths annually from Hepatitis C than from HIV.

Why have Baby Boomers been singled out as being at higher risk? Estimates show that a whopping three out of every four people with Hepatitis C were born during those baby boomer years. Evidently, many Boomers were infected in the 1970s and 1980s, when infection control was not up to today’s standards. Note that the Hepatitis C virus wasn’t even identified until 1989, and blood donations weren’t screened for it until 1992. Because it can take up to 30 years for signs of Hepatitis C to appear, Boomers may only now be experiencing symptoms.

Are you at risk for getting Hepatitis C? The virus is primarily spread through contact with very small amounts of blood from an infected person, and can live outside the body for up to three weeks. 

It may be spread from a blood transfusion (prior to 1992) or from other blood products; unsterilized tools at a tattoo parlor; past recreational drug use which used shared needles; from infected medical equipment or procedures (rarely); and possibly from shared personal items that may have had small amounts of infected blood on them, such as razors or toothbrushes. It is even possible to contract the virus from blood that comes into contact with one’s skin, and then enters the bloodstream through a cut or opening.

Hepatitis C is now screened through a simple blood test known as the Hepatitis C Antibody Test. Testing is recommended for all Baby Boomers, for those who currently or have ever injected drugs, for those who received blood products before 1987, for those who have ever been on hemodialysis, for those who had an organ transplant before 1993, for those with HIV, and for those with elevated liver function tests.

As a health care professional, I find it to be truly amazing that Hepatitis C is now curable. In fact, newer treatments offer cure rates of about 95%!

If you are a baby boomer, or have any of the other risk factors listed above, I urge you to speak with your doctor and get tested.

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.