Hepatitis C: Older Americans are at higher risk

Hepatitis C is a disease that is caused by a virus that affects the liver. Even though the disease often doesn’t produce symptoms, it can seriously damage the liver and can be fatal. An estimated 3.2 million Americans have Hepatitis C.

Older people are more likely to have been exposed to Hepatitis C, but many older Americans are not aware that they need to be tested for it. A December 2013 report found that Hepatitis C infections are concentrated in the Baby Boomers generation. In one major study of people with the virus, 75 percent of the patients were born between 1945 and 1964.

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that results from infection with the Hepatitis C virus, which is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.

Hepatitis C ranges in severity from a mild illness that lasts a few weeks (referred to as an “acute” infection) to a serious, lifelong illness that can destroy the liver (referred to as a “chronic” infection). Most people with Hepatitis C do not have any immediate symptoms.

However, 75 to 85 percent of people who are infected eventually develop a chronic infection.

Chronic Hepatitis C is a serious disease that can result in long-term health problems, including liver damage, liver failure, liver cancer, and even death. It is the leading cause of cirrhosis of the liver (liver scarring) and liver cancer and is the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States. Approximately 15,000 people die every year from Hepatitis C-related liver disease.

What are the symptoms of chronic Hepatitis C?

Most people with chronic Hepatitis C do not have any symptoms, and they may not have symptoms until years later when they develop liver problems. . In people with no symptoms, Hepatitis C is often detected during routine blood tests to measure liver function.

Infected people who do develop symptoms may experience the following: fatigue, joint pain, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fever, dark urine, light-colored stools or yellowish eyes and skin, called jaundice.

Can a person spread Hepatitis C without having symptoms?

Yes. Most people who are infected with Hepatitis C do not know they are infected because they do not look or feel sick. An infected person with no symptoms can spread the virus to others. Any activity that exchanges blood between two people can put a person at risk for exposure.

Before 1992, Hepatitis C was commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Widespread screening of the U.S. blood supply for Hepatitis C began in 1992.

Should I be tested for Hepatitis C?

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Preventive Services Task Force recommend screening for the Hepatitis C virus for people born between 1945 and 1964. Talk to your doctor about being tested for Hepatitis C if any of these apply to you:

• you were born between 1945 and 1964

• you were treated for a blood clotting problem before 1987

• you received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992

• you are on long-term hemodialysis treatment

• you have abnormal liver tests or liver disease

• you work in health care or public safety and were exposed to blood through a needle stick or other sharp object injury

• you have HIV

• you engaged in sex that could have caused bleeding

• you are a current or former injection drug user, even if you injected only one time or many years ago

Can Hepatitis C be treated successfully?

Yes. In about 25 percent of people, an acute infection clears up on its own without treatment. However, if acute hepatitis C is diagnosed, treatment reduces the risk that it will become a chronic infection.

There are several medications that treat chronic Hepatitis C, including new treatments that appear to be more effective and have fewer side effects than previous options. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) keeps a list of approved treatments online at http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ByAudience/ForPatientAdvocates/ucm151494.htm. However, treatment can be expensive. Clinical trials of new drug treatments may also be available.

Hepatitis C and the Affordable Care Act

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, hundreds of thousands of people with Hepatitis C have new access to treatment.

All insurance must provide free screening for Hepatitis C for anyone born between 1945 and 1964.

People with Hepatitis C cannot be turned down for insurance or discriminated against by an insurance company.

Limits on out-of-pocket costs will make expensive treatment more affordable.

Ron Pollack is the executive director of Families USA, a national advocacy organization for health care consumers.