Dear Savvy Senior,
I’ve recently read that all baby boomers should get tested for hepatitis C. Is this really necessary, and if so, what are the testing and treatment procedures?
It’s true. Both the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all baby boomers – people born from 1945 through 1965 – get a hepatitis C test.
The reason is because baby boomers account for 75 percent of the 3 million or so hepatitis C cases in the U.S. Those that are infected are at very high risk of eventually developing liver cancer, cirrhosis or other fatal liver diseases.
Most hepatitis C infections occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, before there were tests to detect them and before the nation’s blood supply was routinely screened for the virus.
Hepatitis C is transmitted only through blood, so anyone who received either a blood transfusion or an organ transplant prior to 1992 is at increased risk too. So are health-care workers exposed to blood, and people who injected drugs through shared needles. The virus can also be spread through microscopic amounts of infected blood that could occur during sex, from sharing a razor or toothbrush, or getting a tattoo or body piercing at an unsterile shop.
Most people that have hepatitis C don’t know they’re infected because there are no symptoms until their liver becomes severely damaged. It can actually take 30 years for people to show any signs of the virus, but by then, it may be too late to treat. But if it’s detected in time, new treatments are now available that can cure it.
Testing and Treatment
If you’re between ages 52 to 72, or fall into one of the previously listed high risk categories, you should see your primary care doctor for a basic blood test to determine whether you have ever been infected with hepatitis C. This is a relatively inexpensive test and typically covered by health insurance under routine medical care.
If the test is negative, no further tests are needed. But, if the test is positive, you’ll need another test called HCV RNA, which will show whether the virus is still active.
If you test positive, you have chronic hepatitis C and will need to talk to your doctor about treatment options. If you’re infected, but have no liver damage, your doctor should monitor your liver at your annual physical.
The main treatments for chronic hepatitis C today are several new FDA approved antiviral medications that have a 95 percent cure rate. Compared to older treatments, these new medications have minimal side effects. Unfortunately, all the new drugs are very expensive – a 12-week treatment course can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $90,000.
Not all health insurance plans, including Medicare Part D plans, cover all prescribed medications for hepatitis C. And due to the expensive nature of these medications, most insurance plans require that you meet several requirements in order to get coverage.
If your insurance provider doesn’t cover the antiviral therapy your doctor recommends, there are financial assistance options available. To look for help, go to HEPC.liverfoundation.org and put your cursor on “Resources” and click on “What if I need Financial Assistance to Pay for Treatment?”
And for more hepatitis C information, along with a quick online quiz you can take to determine your risks, see CDC.gov/knowmorehepatitis. You can also get information over the phone by calling the national toll-free HELP-4-HEP helpline at 877-435-7443.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or go to SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.