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Health message to boomers: Get tested for hepatitis C

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a message for baby boomers: Contact a health professional and ask them to test you for hepatitis C.

One-time tests for hepatitis C can save lives by detecting the disease before symptoms appear and in time to be considered for treatment.by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO - Serene Perkins, MD, liver and pancreas surgical oncologist at Legacy Medical Group and director of the International Surgery Program at Oregon Health & Science University says that at-risk individuals should be tested for Hepatitis C and, hopefully, have the disease detected as early as possible.

“Don't be afraid. Get tested,” said Serene Perkins, MD, liver and pancreas surgical oncologist at Legacy Medical Group and Director of the International Surgery Program at Oregon Health & Science University. “The most important thing is to catch it as early as possible.”

A liver disease resulting from infection with the hepatitis C virus, a common blood-born pathogen, the disease eventually can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and, ultimately, liver cancer. According to the Oregon Department of Health, in the United States from 2.7 to 3.9 million people are infected with the hepatitis C virus. But some people do not know they have the disease. Many are asymptomatic. In acute hepatitis C, symptoms may include jaundice, fatigue, dark urine, abdominal pain and nausea.

Although younger individuals, including those exposed by contaminated equipment during tattooing or body piercing, may also have reasons to be tested, baby boomers were singled out by the CDC because of the high amount of illicit injectable drug use that occurred in this cohort when they were in their 20s and 30s. Even just a once-in-a-lifetime illicit injectable drug use 30 years ago could have infected a person with hepatitis C, especially in light of the lack of awareness back then that sharing and reusing needles is dangerous.

“IV drug use is common today as well, and we are seeing a resurgence of hepatitis C in these young people,” Perkins said.

And it's not just drug users who should  be tested. Those who had blood transfusions and organ transplants prior to 1992, when the risk of becoming infected was approximately one in 200 transfused units ( according to Iowa Department of Health), are also at risk of carrying the virus.

State health departments warn that other potential risks for transmission include sex, long-term hemodialysis, sharing straws for intranasal cocaine use and occupational blood exposure.

If a person tests positive for hepatitis C, then the next step is to see a gastroenterologist.

“If tested positive, although they seem healthy, it can be deceiving,” Perkins said. “They may already have cirrhosis of the liver.”

Perkins added that children born to women who test positive for the virus should also be tested.