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CDC Pushing Hepatitis C Tests For Baby Boomers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that every Baby Boomer in the nation be tested for Hepatitis C.

It’s a liver disease that’s contracted through blood-to-blood contact — so from a blood transfusion or sharing a needle.

Local experts estimate there are up to 8,000 new cases of Hepatitis C diagnosed every year in Oregon. Many sufferers have no idea they’re walking around with a potentially fatal disease.

Fran Owens is 66-years-old. She works for the Salvation Army and lives in Happy Valley.

Ron and Fran Owens

Ron and Fran Owens

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“I am planning on moving and retirement is at my doorstep. And so I went in for my last check up with my doctor. And we said our goodbyes and everyone gathered around and wished me luck. And the doctor said, you know Fran, before you go. I want you to take just one more blood test,” Owens said.

It was a test for Hepatitis C antibodies and it came back positive. Now she’s waiting for another test, to see if she does in fact have the virus.

“I wasn’t real alarmed.  I knew a little bit about Hepatitis C. So I wasn’t too alarmed by it. But after I got to think about it for a day or so, I became very nervous. What’s going to happen to me. I’m just retiring. I’m planning on playing you know. My time has arrived and now Hepatitis C is in my life. What does that mean.”

Owens says she feels healthy. She hasn’t had a cold in four years and she enjoys activities like yard work and walking. So she says, it’s had to fathom that she might have a serious disease.

“If I’m tired, I account it to what I’m doing. You know, working too hard or stress or things like that. So it really never entered my mind that I would be carrying Hepatitis C.”

Owens is far from alone.

The CDC recommends testing for anybody born between 1945 and 1965. Hepatitis C is a virus, and the CDC says it’s the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the country.

Doctor Kent Benner is with The Oregon Clinic. He says baby boomers are five times more likely than other adults to carry the disease. And he estimates, a couple of hundred Oregonians will die each year from Hepatitis C.

He says many sufferers have no outward symptoms. The disease attacks the liver.

“You get scar bands surrounding regenerative liver cells trying to grow back. So there are nodules and scars that affect the functions of the liver. And this can progress to liver failure. The liver has an important job making essential proteins. Proteins to keep the fluid in your vessels and you can get puffy legs and fluid in your abdomen. As the blood flow is disrupted through the liver, bypass blood vessels develop in the upper GI tract, the esophagus stomach and you can get varicose veins essentially break open — an internal hemorrhage.”

Those kinds of health problems are why the CDC announced last month that Baby Boomers should be tested.

The agency says boomers are particularly plagued by Hepatitis C because they had blood transfusions before widespread screening of the blood supply began in 1992. A number of boomers also experimented with drug use and shared needles.

Dr. Benner says some also caught the disease from other activities, like sniffing cocaine through a rolled-up dollar bill.

“There was one study from the Red Cross that rigorously interviewed people before they donate blood and found a certain group that had Hep C, even though they didn’t have the usual risk factors.  Then they re-interviewed them even more rigorously and found that half of them had had inter nasal drug use and half of them remembered sharing straws and having had nose bleeds with someone else they were exposed to.”

The CDC is calling for more testing in part because nowadays, three quarters of sufferers should be able to get rid of the virus. Twenty years ago, treatments were new and only effective in one in 10 people.

“More drugs are being developed for this particular disease than any other disease in history. There are 50 drugs in clinical trials right now, looking at all different types of mechanism of inhibiting the natural history of this virus.”

Dr. Ann Thomas is with the Oregon Health Authority. She says she’s been fielding calls from physicians about the new testing.  

She’s also spoken about Hepatitis C at various events, and the testing recommendation has been added it to the state’s Acute and Communicable Disease website.

“This reflects a big change in strategy on the part of the CDC.”

Up to now she says, the CDC has been focused on testing people in high risk populations — like intravenous drug users and prisoners.  The agency estimates that up to 40 percent of inmates have or have had Hepatitis C at some time.

Thomas says while the feds are calling for the new tests, the state does not have a lot of money to throw at this issue.

“There are limited resources for hepatitis prevention from the federal government. We’re really sort of preserving our state resources for the people at highest risk. The hope is that people who are in this Baby Boomer age group, who for the most part have insurance and access to health care will be able to see this as another routine preventive care thing that they get from their health care provider.”

Back in Happy Valley, Fran Owens is still waiting for final test results. But she’s wondering how she might have contracted the disease.

“Now that I know what causes it, yes there’s several options where I might have gotten it.  In first birth, blood transfusion, possibility 1966. A little wild and reckless in my 20s in the wild years, so there was some needle use with drugs, recreational use. Not much, a couple of times. Not much. Worked in a dentist office for 12 years with blood, without gloves or goggles. Then, I think that was about it. Those three possibilities.”

The last of those possibilities — working in the dentists office — was in the early 1980s. So, if she does indeed have Hepatitis C, she’s had it for at least 30 years.

She says she’s willing to talk about her youthful transgressions to try and reduce the stigma that surrounds the disease.

“I told my co-worker, who is sitting at my desk a lot, and he said, ‘Oh, I need to wipe everything down now.’  I’m just like, ‘Oooowww.’  Because he didn’t have knowledge of the disease. That it’s not passed through saliva, or coughing or sneezing or drinking from the cup. Like that. It’s blood, only through blood. So I said, ‘If I fall down and bang my head, you have cause to worry.’ “

She’s right. Doctors say you can’t contract the disease in those ways.  And the good news is Hepatitis C can be successfully treated in three to six months.

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