Hepatitis C and All of We

Line up baby boomers – all 78 million of you – it’s time to test for hepatitis C. That’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) propose. We all need to get a blood test. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that may progress to liver cancer or cirrhosis. Hepatitis C, the most common type in the United States, is spread when blood from a person infected with the virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. Around 15%–25% of infected people clear the virus without any treatment, but the remaining 75%–85% develop a chronic infection that may be silent for years. Most infected people don’t feel sick – while their livers are slowly being damaged.

Historically, the CDC has recommended testing people known to be at high risk.  They include current and past users of injection drugs, recipients of blood transfusions and organ transplants before 1990 when screening blood donations became widespread, and healthcare workers exposed to blood. Much less commonly, the hepatitis C virus is spread by sharing razors, toothbrushes, and other personal care items that may come in contact with blood. Having sex with someone infected with hepatitis C is somewhat risky too, especially when exposed to multiple sex partners who have sexually transmitted diseases. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. Bummer.

I, for one, I wish the CDC would stop scaring me. Doctors test for the hepatitis C antibody (also called HCAb or anti-HCV) to tell if you’ve been infected. The test is very sensitive, which means false positives, more testing, and more being scared. All when only 3 percent of asymptomatic boomers actually test positive. As a responsible health blogger, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I am always skeptical of guidelines that push asymptomatic individuals en masse towards prescriptions. I just wonder who is being best served. The CDC’s draft recommendations are available for public comment until June 8, 2012.

Your thoughts: Are you worried about having hepatitis C?

Addendum:  August 16, 2012
It’s official: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending that all U.S. baby boomers get a one-time test for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, according to final screening guidelines released by the public health agency.  Read more.