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The rate for Hepatitis C virus is so high among baby boomers that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is urging everyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested. NorthShore’s Hepatology Program, led by liver specialist Claus Fimmel, MD, recently began a pilot program to screen patients at risk. In just the last two years, more than 400 patients have been treated with new and highly effective medications for hepatitis.
Dr. Fimmel answers questions about the importance of screening:
Why are baby boomers targeted for Hepatitis C (Hep C) screening?
Individuals born between 1945 and 1965 (baby boomers) are the demographic group with the highest Hep C infection rate in the United States. They are often not aware of being infected because they do not have any known risk factors, such as prior blood transfusions or intravenous drug use. Studies have shown that hep C testing based on age alone is more successful in these patients than risk factor-based testing.
How is Hep C spread and who is at risk?
Hep C is a blood-borne infection that can be transmitted from an infected mother to the fetus during delivery (“vertical transmission”), through infected blood products and medical injection devices, by injection drug use with needle-sharing, or by tattoos and piercings. In a significant number of cases, we do not know how the infection was acquired. Individuals born to a Hep C-infected mother and those who were exposed to contaminated blood at any point in their lives are at risk.
If you have Hep C but don’t know it, what happens if it’s left untreated?
In the worst-case scenario, the infection can progress all the way to cirrhosis, typically without causing any symptoms until the very late stages of the disease. Cirrhosis can result in liver cancer or liver failure, which are often fatal.
What is the treatment for Hep C?
We now have incredibly effective medications that cure the infection in over 95 percent of patients with just 8 to 12 weeks of taking one or a few pills a day. These medications are safe and extremely well-tolerated, unlike the previous medications that included interferon injections
Isn’t Hep C screening already part of a patient’s annual blood workup?
Hep C testing is not part of the routine annual blood work. However, NorthShore primary care physicians are now offering one-time testing to all baby boomer patients as part of a routine clinic visit. The Hep C blood test is covered by Medicare and most insurance plans.