It is Hepatitis Awareness Month and Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris D. Lushniak is shining a spotlight on this hidden epidemic while strongly encouraging vulnerable people could that be you? — to get tested. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated May 19 as Testing Day, Lushniak recommends you discuss with your doctor how to get tested for hepatitis C virus (HCV) any day of the month. He urges baby boomers and African-Americans, in particular, to set up their appointments. (This page, set up by the CDC, will help you find a testing location.)

Though deadly, HCV often goes undetected because in many cases there are no symptoms. Even people who have been infected for decades may show no signs of illness until they develop advanced liver disease. By that time, treatment options are limited and less effective. Currently, Lushniak estimates that somewhere between 2.7 and 3.9 million Americans are infected with HCV, and three-quarters of that total are baby boomers born sometime during 1945 through 1965. For this reason, CDC has issued a recommendation that primary care physicians test all baby boomers routinely, without inquiring about risk behaviors.

“As a fellow baby boomer, I am very concerned that one in 40 baby boomers — about 2.1 million people — are infected with HCV,” Lushniak wrote in a recent report, Surgeon General’s Perspectives. “African American people are also disproportionately affected by HCV.”

Without effective detection and follow-up treatment, more than one-third of those who carry the virus may die from related diseases — three-quarters of these deaths would occur among baby boomers, experts say. Testing consists of an antibody test, which simply requires a doctor to draw your blood and send it to a lab. A health care provider can also order other tests to check for the presence of HCV and to figure out the person’s HCV viral load (the amount of HCV in a measurement of blood). Though no test can tell if or when an infected person will develop cirrhosis or liver failure, doctors have found that, generally, the lower the HCV viral load, the better a patient's chances of responding to treatment.

Risk Factors

It is known that half of all infected baby boomers never report any HCV-related risk factors, which include injected drug use (even once). Other reasons someone may be at higher risk for carrying the virus include body piercings, tattoos, having had a sexually transmitted disease, multiple sex partners, or being born to a mother with HCV. Medical reasons for high risk include blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992, biochemical evidence of possible liver damage or disease, and HIV infection. If you are concerned, CDC has developed an online Hepatitis Risk Assessment tool to help determine your risk for hepatitis.

Causing inflammation of the liver, hepatitis symptoms (when present) include nausea, fever, weakness, loss of appetite, and jaundice. Hepatitis A is commonly transmitted by eating food or drinking water contaminated with human waste. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with the blood or body fluids of an infected person. Hepatitis C is usually spread through contact with blood containing the virus.