According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 300 million people across the globe are unaware they're living with viral hepatitis. In fact, baby boomers-;those born between 1945-1965-;are five times more likely to have hepatitis C, one of the many different strains of this viral infection.
Unlike other types of hepatitis, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C. The exact reason hepatitis C is most prevalent in baby boomers is unknown, although transmission of the virus primarily through blood was highest before strong infection control procedures were adopted.
"Many people don't know how or when they were infected, and you can live decades without symptoms," says Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center's Michael Curry, MD, Section Chief, Hepatology. "If left untreated, hepatitis C can cause scarring of the liver, which slows down blood flow that's crucial for liver function. By the time symptoms do appear, the damage is usually advanced. That's why testing is so important."
In addition to causing scarring (cirrhosis), two out of every three liver cancers are caused by hepatitis.
The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is a blood test, called a hepatitis C antibody test. "The test looks for antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. Once someone is infected, there will always be antibodies in their blood," Curry says.
For decades, the most common treatment for hepatitis C was a series of painful shots, sometimes year-long process with chemo-like side effects.
Treatment for hepatitis C is now on the cutting-edge of medicine. "It's curable," Curry says. "The treatments are highly effective and in most cases, are accomplished in 8-12 weeks."
These new medications are called direct-acting antivirals that attack the virus head on. Physicians at BIDMC's Liver Center are recognized leaders in the development of these treatments.
"Each medication is different, but they remove all traces of the virus from your blood within three months," says Curry. "This is called sustained virologic response, and it's what your doctors look for to tell you if you're cured."