Hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease that's
reported to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Baby boomers those born
between 1945 and 1965 - are more likely than any other age group to be
infected without knowing it. But Dr. Ngozi MezuPatel, infectious
disease specialist at Cortland Regional Medical Center, says most of her
new Hepatitis C patients are in their 20s and 30s.
"Sixty to 70 percent of my cases are younger people, and about half
of them have a history of previous opioid abuse or were IV drug users
who are now getting their lives together," she says.
That aligns with recent reports from the CDC that new cases of Hepatitis
C are at a 15-year high, with most new cases found among 20 to 29-year-olds.
Health officials link the new cases to injected drug use related to the
current opioid epidemic.
Hepatitis C is one of five types of inflammatory liver infection, all caused
by different viruses. Types A and E are spread through contaminated water
or food; 8, C and D are blood borne. Hep C is one of the most common blood
borne viral infections in the U.S. It's a silent virus as well - an
individual be a carrier for years without having symptoms. By the time
symptoms appear, damage to the liver and how it functions has already occurred.
“Hepatitis C is spread mostly through infected blood, with about
one percent sexually transmitted. Most cases come from IV drug use; not
just needle sharing, but people dipping their needles into the same pot
of drugs so that the drug itself becomes contaminated,” says Mezu-Patel.
"Tattoos are another big problem. People can become infected in unsanitary
shops where the tattoo equipment is not cleaned properly, or when their
friends do the tattoo for them, or they do it on their own at home. Some
people contract it from tattoos they got while in prison."
The virus wasn't discovered until 1989, and a reliable test to find
it in the blood wasn't available until 1992. Doctors say this could
be why so many baby boomers are infected.
"Before we could screen for it, most of the cases of Hep C were attributed
to blood transfusions or organ transplants," says Dr. Matthew Karpenko,
of Cortland Regional Hematology and Oncology. "Then we learned that
it could be transmitted through unprotected sexual contact and sharing
"Baby boomers represent a disproportionate number of those with chronic
liver disease. When the CDC tested a representative sample of non-hospitalized
patients, it found that those born between 1945 and 1965 accounted for
81 percent of the chronic Hep C cases," Karpenko reports.
II Twenty percent of those individuals had a history of IV drug use and
unprotected sex. II
Along with a six times higher likelihood of having the virus, Karpenko
adds that this group also has a higher risk of dying from Hep C. "If
it's not treated, Hep C can lead to liver scarring, cirrhosis, cancer,
and end stage liver disease."
"The good news is that since 2014, we've had these amazing medications
come into the market for treatment," says Mezu-Patel. "It's
a one pill, once a day treatment for anywhere from six to 12 weeks."
Before this, Hep C was treated with toxic drugs administered through an
IV that had significant side effects. Mezu-Patel said the treatment was
so unpleasant, many patients didn't see it through to the end.
Mezu-Patel recommends that all baby boomers be tested for Hep C, even if
they never engaged in risky behavior. "But you never know,"
she says. "We have found people who never did anything risky whose
tests came back positive. It's simple blood test to find out. And
it's a horrible way to die."
Along with testing and treatment, Cortland Regional offers counseling and
public education about Hepatitis C.
"Hepatitis C has a big stigma to it," Mezu-Patel says. "Most
people think of Hep C as an illness of drug addicts and that's not
true. So, counseling the patient and educating the population is very