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Johns Hopkins Health - Testing for a Hidden Threat

Spring 2013
Issue No. 20

Testing for a Hidden Threat

Date: April 19, 2013

Baby boomers at risk for hepatitis C

hepatitis C

All baby boomers should get screened for hepatitis C—and take comfort in new treatments
If you’re a baby boomer, you might be relishing a new set of responsibilities that comes with age. You are approaching (or enjoying!) retirement, your children are grown, you have a few grandkids to spoil, and you’re still healthy enough to enjoy it all.

Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has added one more responsibility to ensure you stay healthy: Get screened for hepatitis C. In August 2012, the CDC issued a recommendation that all Americans born from 1945 to 1965 get a one-time blood test for the disease. Although no one wants a positive result, knowing you have hepatitis C offers the opportunity for treatment that may ward off serious health concerns.

Baby boomers account for one in every four people in the United States but three of every four who have hepatitis C, says Mark Sulkowski, M.D., professor of medicine and medical director of the Johns Hopkins Infectious Disease Center for Viral Hepatitis. “Peak spread occurred in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, before the virus was identified and testing was available,” he says, “so many people were exposed during that time.”

The hepatitis C virus is mainly transmitted through blood, such as from a transfusion (prior to widespread blood supply screening in 1992) or contact with contaminated needles.
Though the disease can take years to manifest, “most people carry it, even for decades, without experiencing symptoms,” Sulkowski says. “As a result, many won’t find their illness until later on, after liver damage has occurred.” Symptoms of liver disease include pain in the right upper abdomen, fatigue, dark urine, muscle and joint pain, jaundice, fever and nausea, and poor appetite.
“Hepatitis C infects the liver and can lead to a chronic infection, causing scarring over time and leading to cirrhosis, liver failure and even liver cancer,” Sulkowski says.

“Treatment includes three medications—interferon, ribavirin and new direct-acting antivirals—and has a 75 percent cure rate,” he adds. “And Johns Hopkins is in the last stages of testing oral therapies that have fewer side effects and better outcomes.”

What You Can Expect
An estimated 800,000 people ages 48 to 68 will discover they have hepatitis C after taking a one-time test recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The testing process is simple.

  • Your doctor will draw your blood and test it for the presence of hepatitis C antibodies. A positive test signals that you have been exposed to the virus at some point in your life.
  • With a positive antibody test, your doctor will order another blood test or two to confirm whether the virus is still present in your blood and help him or her determine the best course of treatment.
  • More than 90 percent of people taking new oral therapies currently being tested at Johns Hopkins are cured of hepatitis C.
  • Insurance may or may not cover the one-time blood test. Be sure to check with your plan provider.

For more information, appointments or consultations, call 877-546-1872.