How Can Baby Boomers Become More HCV Aware?

Former flaws in medical care may have driven the generation's rate of infection, but modern testing will improve it.

Gavin Cloherty, PhD

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), baby boomers are 5 times more likely to have hepatitis C (HCV) than other adults. Through IV drug abuse and unprotected sex, baby boomers have reported such high HCV rates, Gavin Cloherty, PhD, director of Infectious Disease Research for Abbott’s diagnostics business told MD Magazine.

As a result, there’s “definitely a stigma around this generation group and HCV,” Cloherty said.

However, this isn’t necessarily because baby boomers as a group indulged in risky behavior.

“Research suggests that the hepatitis C epidemic among baby boomers is not solely due to lifestyle choices, but also due to contaminated blood transfusions and hospital transmissions via reused medical equipment,” Cloherty said.

The Mystery of High Infection Rates

Now researchers are expressing hope for a greater rate of testing in baby boomers — even those who don’t believe they’re susceptible to HCV.It’s believed that most HCV positive boomers became infected during the period of highest HCV transmission — the 1960s to the 1990s.

Though the reason this age group has such high rates of infection is a mystery, there are theories.

Cloherty believes one reason why baby boomers are at higher risk for HCV is due to transfusion-associated infections caused by contaminated blooding being prominent from 1940 through the 1970s. Eventually, changes in strategy for blood collection limited these transmissions, first through discontinuing whole blood donor payment and then by the use of surrogate tests to identify people with hepatitis B infections.

“Later generations didn’t have this risk as widespread screening virtually eliminated the virus from the blood supply by 1992,” Cloherty said.

Cloherty added that another major way that HCV spread could have been through unsafe medical practices used at the time.

The Means to Improve Testing

“Between 1940 through 1960, the medical establishment routinely re-used glass and metal syringes and finger stick devices,” Cloherty said.Opt-out testing, which is an approach that is often employed with HIV screening, could be a viable method to improve diagnosis rates, Cloherty said. Patients receive a one-time test, unless they actively “opt out” and tell their physician they don’t want the test performed. This could become routine practice in health networks and hospitals, and would help patients avoid potentially life-threatening impact of undiagnosed infection. It could also save the healthcare system the cost of managing these clinical consequences, Cloherty said.

Improvements could also be made through the use of electronic medical records, which could help physicians identify people who need to be screened and their results, and link those patients diagnosed with HCV to treatment.

“Hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease, including HIV/AIDs,” Cloherty said. “We need to do all that we can to make HCV testing and treatment a routine part of wellness. If we approach HCV testing like we screen for colon cancer and other health conditions, we’ll be able to reduce this statistic.”

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