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Hepatitis C & Seniors: Why You Should Get Tested

There are as many as 3.9 million people in the United States who have Hepatitis C, and millions of them may not know it. Hepatitis C can show no symptoms for decades before finally appearing, and by then considerable damage may have already been done. Getting tested can be a life-saving decision for seniors, who comprise nearly 75% of all cases.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis virus C (HVC) is a liver disease caused by a viral infection. Given time, it can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer.  Most people won’t know this is happening to their body until significant damage has already been done. The early stages of Hepatitis C usually have no symptoms, until finally yellowing skin (jaundice) and fatigue appear.  For people who seek treatment only after cirrhosis has occurred, full recovery may not be possible.

Seniors at Risk

The group of seniors at highest risk for Hepatitis C is the Baby Boomer generation — anyone born between 1945 and 1965. According to the CDC, Baby Boomers are more than five times as likely to be infected as other adults.

How did so many Baby Boomers become infected? The answer isn’t clear, but is likely a combination of several factors. For instance, medical equipment wasn’t sterilized as completely before the 1980’s HIV scare. Additionally, it wasn’t standard for donated blood and organs to be screened for Hepatitis C until as recently as 1992.

Getting Tested

The Hepatitis C test is a simple blood screening to search for Hepatitis antibodies. The initial test can’t determine if you have an active infection, only if you’ve been infected at some point during your life. For those who have had an infection during their lifetime, a second test will be performed to look for an active infection. These simple blood tests can usually be done in only a few weeks.

About 15% of people infected with Hepatitis C will defeat the virus without medication, a process called spontaneous clearance. Women are far more likely to have spontaneous clearance for Hepatitis C than men. That’s why men are more likely to have Hepatitis C, and women are more likely to initially test positive but ultimately test negative.

Becoming Infected

Hep C is primarily spread by contact with infected blood. You cannot get Hepatitis C by kissing, coughing, sharing food, or other forms of casual contact. It can be sexually transmitted, but the risk is very low among monogamous partners, and can be reduced further with condoms. HVC may also be spread if the lining of the mouth is broken, so sharing toothbrushes, nail clippers, and other items of personal hygiene items isn’t recommended.

Treatment for Hepatitis C

Traditional treatment options for Hepatitis  C were fairly bleak. Antiviral medications can reduce the damage taken by the liver, but many patients ultimately faced transplant. But in 2014, a cure for Hepatitis C was discovered. The treatment is has a near-perfect rate of success.

Unfortunately, these treatments are also quite expensive, typically ranging in-between $50,000 and $90,000. While these costs might seem inordinate, they’re also a small fraction of the cost of a liver transplant.

Early detection can stop Hep C in its tracks, before it has the opportunity to do liver damage. Baby Boomers need to be tested. Given that the test is relatively inexpensive and usually covered by insurance, getting tested is a good idea even if you don’t feel unwell. Early detection won’t just prevent liver damage – it may save a life.