Many baby boomers may be unaware they need screening for the hepatitis C virus, a small study suggests.
In a survey of 81 emergency room patients born during the "baby boom" from 1945 to 1965, only 29 percent of participants knew their risk for the virus was higher than for people born in earlier or later generations, the study found.
"Baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than those groups born before or after this period," said senior study author Dr. Ellie Carmody, an infectious disease researcher at New York University School of Medicine.
Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of someone who isn't infected. These days, most people infected with the virus get it from sharing needles or equipment to inject drugs, but it can also be transmitted during sex, and until a test for it was developed in the early 1990s, people could acquire hepatitis C through blood transfusions.
"Because hepatitis C does not cause symptoms until many years after the original infection, baby boomers may have been infected decades ago and be unaware of their infection," Carmody added by email. "The longer people live with chronic hepatitis C, the more likely they are to develop complications."
To see how well baby boomers understand the virus, Carmody and colleagues asked a sampling of patients treated at one New York Hospital to complete brief surveys quizzing them about the virus.
Most people surveyed knew hepatitis C could lead to liver failure or cancer and be transmitted during sex or from blood transfusions. But most of them also incorrectly assumed the virus could be spread by kissing or shaking hands.
Only 17 percent correctly noted that there's no vaccine that can prevent people from getting the virus, researchers report in the Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Just 51 percent of respondents knew that hepatitis C can be cured, even though 77 percent correctly said new medicines have become available in recent years that make the virus easier to treat.
Beyond its small size, another limitation of the study is that not all patients answered every question on the survey, the authors note. In addition, more than half were not born in the U.S. and 69 percent had a high school diploma level of education or less, so the sample may not represent the wider population of baby boomers.
Nevertheless, emergency departments have become an important setting for early detection of infectious diseases and could be a good place for hepatitis screening, the authors write.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C at least once as part of their standard medical care.
Testing is the only way to detect hepatitis C in many people who have the virus but don't feel sick, said Dr. Alexander Millman, a medical epidemiologist in the CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis.
"Hepatitis C infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver, liver cancer, or death," Millman, who wasn't involved in the study, said by email.
"Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplantation in the United States," Millman added.