Dear Savvy Senior:
In the news last month there was a public health alert urging all baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C. Is this really necessary, and if so, what are the testing and treatment procedures?
If you're a baby boomer, getting tested for hepatitis C would be a wise decision because boomers are five times more likely to have this virus than other generations, and most people that have it don't realize it. Those that are infected are at a very high risk of eventually developing liver cancer, cirrhosis or other fatal liver diseases. Here's what else you should know.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that all Americans born from 1945 through 1965 get a hepatitis C test. The reason is because baby boomers account for 75 percent of the 3 million or so hepatitis C cases in the U.S., even though they make up only 27 percent of the total population.
Most hepatitis C infections occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, before there were tests to detect them and before the nation's blood supply was routinely screened for the virus.
Hepatitis C is transmitted only through blood, so anyone who received either a blood transfusion or an organ transplant prior to 1992 is at increased risk. So are health-care workers exposed to blood and people who injected drugs through shared needles. The virus can also be spread through microscopic amounts of infected blood that could occur during sex, from sharing a razor or toothbrush, or getting a tattoo or body piercing at an unsterile shop.
But the biggest part of the problem is the symptomless nature of this disease. Most people that have hepatitis C don't have any symptoms until their liver becomes severely damaged. It can actually take 30 years for people to show any signs of the virus, but by then, it may be too late to treat. But if it's detected in time, new treatments are now available that can cure it.
Testing and Treatment
If you're between ages 47 to 67 or fall into one of the previously listed high risk categories, you should see your primary care doctor for a basic blood test to determine whether you have ever been infected with hepatitis C. This is a relatively inexpensive test and typically covered by health insurance under routine medical care. If you're not covered, the test will run $30 to $35.
If the test is negative, no further tests are needed. But, if the test is positive, you'll need another test called HCV RNA which will show whether the virus is still active. This test runs between $100 and $250 if you're not covered by insurance.
If you test positive, you have chronic hepatitis C and will need to talk to your doctor about treatment options. If you're infected but have no liver damage, your doctor should monitor your liver at your annual physical.
The main treatments for chronic hepatitis C today are new antiviral medications that have a 75 percent cure rate. Your doctor may recommend a combination of these medications, which are typically taken over a 24-to-48 week time period. But, be aware that the side effects can be grueling and may cause extreme fatigue, fever, headaches and muscle aches.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine currently available to prevent hepatitis C, although studies are under way to develop one.
Savvy tips: For more information about testing and treatment for hepatitis C, along with a quick, online quiz you can take to determine your risks, see the CDC's website at cdc.gov/knowmorehepatitis. You can also get information over the phone by calling the national toll-free HELP-4-HEP helpline at 877-435-7443.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.