As in other areas of life, it’s the silent health threats we need to worry most about because they can fester and worsen for years without us knowing.
The liver disease Hepatitis C has become one of those silent health threats that some have labeled a national epidemic, mainly because an estimated 3.2 million Americans are infected with the virus, but only 1.6 million are diagnosed. Spread by blood on shared needles or through tainted blood used for transfusion before mandatory blood testing began in the early 1990s, there are few obvious symptoms for Hepatitis C. Although the disease can lead to liver cancer, liver failure or cirrhosis in the long term, in its early stages, its mild symptoms can be attributable to aging or other health conditions.
The population most at risk is the Baby Boomers, which accounts for 70 percent of the nation’s infections.
“Many people who were born in the Baby Boom are now grandparents, parents, and/or in positions of leadership in their jobs and community. They don’t appear to have risk factors of injection drug use, they may truly not recall having used injection drugs perhaps just one time at a party when they were in college,” explains Diana Y. Wu, MD, MSc, a gastroenterologist specializing in diseases of the liver in women with the Center for Women’s Gastrointestinal Health at Women & Infants Hospital.
Because of the epidemic, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now recommends that primary care providers screen everyone born from 1945 to 1965 for Hepatitis C regardless of their obvious risk. Untreated, Hepatitis C can have devastating and even fatal effects on the liver. But, Dr. Wu says it is an “unprecedented and very exciting time for treatment of Hepatitis C” because new, more effective treatments are now on the market.
“The new drugs are also much easier to administer and tolerate. In particular, compared to old drugs like interferon which caused severe fatigue, malaise and hair loss, the new drugs have mild side effects,” she notes. “Interferon also required treatment for almost a whole year for many patients, leaving them unable to hold down jobs since they felt too ill from side effects.”
Perhaps most importantly, the cure rates with the new drugs are much better, now more than 90% for most people. Even patients who have not been cured with old treatments now have a much better chance of cure. While the medications can eliminate the Hepatitis C virus from many patients, there still may be permanent damage.
“Some patients may have residual scarring/advanced fibrosis (cirrhosis) of the liver from years of chronic Hepatitis C infection. They still need to see their doctors every six months to be screened for liver cancer,” Dr. Wu says.