Ask an expert: Why should baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C?

If you were born between 1945 and 1965, now is the time to consider getting tested for the hepatitis C virus. Baby boomers are five times more likely to have the hepatitis C virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even if you feel fine, it’s important to get tested. That’s because hepatitis C is a “silent” disease—most people with the virus can go years, even decades, before symptoms appear. At that point, life-threatening liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer, has begun.

We asked University of Iowa Health Care hepatologist Alan Gunderson, MD, to provide details.

What is hepatitis C, and how common is it in the United States?

Hepatitis refers to inflammation of the liver. There are a handful of viral hepatitis types (A, B, C, and E), but hepatitis C is the cause of the majority of serious liver disease in the United States. The hepatitis C virus is spread when blood from a person infected with the virus enters the body of someone who’s not infected. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C, which makes early detection so important.

In the United States, it’s estimated that between 3 and 5 million people have chronic hepatitis C, and most of those people don’t know they’re infected. The majority of people with chronic hepatitis C are from the baby boom generation.

Why baby boomers?

We don’t know for sure, but we do know the highest period of hepatitis C virus transmission occurred between 1960 and 1980. This was most likely due to several factors. For example, sterilization techniques for common surgical procedures were not as advanced as they are today. Also, before widespread screening of the nation’s blood supply began in 1992, the hepatitis C virus could spread via blood transfusions and organ transplant procedures. Another factor was the rise of recreational drug use from the 1960s through the 1980s—again, at a time when we weren’t aware of hepatitis C.

Is hepatitis C treatable?

Yes, and treatment has changed remarkably in the past four years. It used to be that the treatment generally lasted about 12 months and had many side effects—almost like some types of cancer chemotherapy—and cured only about 40 percent of those treated. Today’s medicines are generally taken for three months, have few side effects—almost like taking a cholesterol pill—and cure about 95 percent of those treated. It has become an exciting time in terms of hepatitis C treatment.

So, raising awareness about getting tested now is important.

Absolutely. Most adults recognize the value of health screenings for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, for example, but many don’t realize the importance of screening for hepatitis C. It’s the most common reason Americans get liver transplants. And as baby boomers get older, more people who have hepatitis C—diagnosed or undiagnosed—are getting sicker. It’s a serious health issue, which is why you should get checked and prevent the spread. Talk to your doctor about getting screened for hepatitis C.

Walk-in hepatitis C testing

Getting tested for hepatitis C is easy at the UI Health Care location at Iowa River Landing, 105 E. 9th St. in Coralville. Walk-in testing is available from 7:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 7:15 a.m. to noon Saturday. Testing involves a simple blood draw and is covered by most insurance plans. First-time patients are always welcome. Stop in or call 319-467-2000 for more information.

Last reviewed: 
September 2017

Interested in using our health content?