With the end of the second World War, North America saw a spike in its birth rate, resulting in a populous generation that would not only bring about vast social and economic changes, but also enjoy one of the most prosperous times in human history. It would appear though that World War 2 didn’t just give the Baby Boomers their beginning, it may have also brought about an epidemic. The battlefield medical procedures and flow of troops from around the world converging together from the war gave rise to a spread of disease, one of which was Hepatitis C (1). Studies now show that the reuse of needles and lack of screening blood products allowed for the spread of the virus (1). Despite having a stereotype of being contracted primarily by IV drug addicts or sexual promiscuity, 75% of the 6 million adults in North America infected with Hep C were born between 1945-1964 (1).
Approximately 80% of people infected with Hep C do not exhibit any symptoms (2) making it possible to go 15 years or more before being diagnosed (3). Hepatitis C is a disease caused by a virus that infects the liver and over time can lead to cirrhosis, cancer, or failure of this vital organ (3). The virus is spread through contact with infected blood; for example sharing or reusing of needles, blood transfusions prior to 1992, tattoos or piercings given with infected equipment, shots given with infected needles, and more rarely mother to baby or sexual intercourse with infected parties (3). The disease presents itself in one of two forms, either acute or chronic. Acutely the disease is rarely life threatening and is asymptomatic, spontaneously clearing within 6 months without treatment in 15-45% of cases (2). Chronic is more common, affecting 55-85% of those infected and carries a 15-20% risk of liver cirrhosis within 20 years (2). The disease is often diagnosed by accident. It is common for the infected individual to be donating blood and have the screening process show elevated liver enzymes (3). This leads to further blood work and liver biopsy to confirm the diagnosis (3). Of the 170 million people infected worldwide, between 250 000 and 300 000 are Canadian (4,5) and 4.1 million are American (6). In America, Hepatitis C is next after Alcoholism for the leading cause of liver disease and the leading reason for liver transplants. Between 1-5% of those infected will die of liver disease or liver cancer, with 10 000 – 12 000 people dying yearly from Hepatitis C (6). This number is expected to triple in the next two decades however due to the aging baby Boomer population (6).
A recent Canadian study out of B.C. was able to determine time sequencing (origin, introduction and speed of spread) for the disease through the study of virus mutations (5). The evidence showed that the peak of the spread of Hep C was in 1950 when most Baby Boomers were only children, which would negate them from the once presumed behavioral practices that spread the disease, like sexual promiscuity and needle drug use (5). This put the spread of the disease 15 years earlier than was first thought (5). With the plateau of the spread being between 1960-1990, consistent with changes in injection technology, the evidence became more clear that the medical practices of reusing and improperly sterilizing medical equipment to be the main culprit of allowing the disease to spread, and the prevalence of it in the Baby Boomer generation (5). Add to this the fact that blood screening practices from blood donations for blood products and transfusions didn’t come into effect until 1992, and you have a recipe for unchecked transmission of blood borne diseases like Hepatitis C (5).
In May of 2012 the American Centre for Disease Control recommended that all Baby Boomers be tested for Hepatitis C in light of this new information (7). The Canadian government, however has been behind in acknowledging this epidemic and as a result a recent Liver Foundation survey showed that 80% of Canadians in the Baby Boomer age bracket are unaware of the risk and only 25% of them have been tested for the disease (8). Personally it was not until recently seeing an ad in a National Geographic magazine for Baby Boomers to be tested that I became aware of any such issue. Had my curiosity not been peaked, I would not know about this very important issue. Having parents that are Baby Boomers and working in the health care industry I can see how this is a subject that should be addressed. What will this mean for our health care systems in the very near future? Will they be equipped to handle it? And how many will die, unnecessarily because of lack of knowledge? This disease has a 95% success rate with medical cures now (5), so would education not prevent deaths?
You can find the links for all the sources used here on the Resources tab on the website. I encourage you to take a look at them as there is more in-depth information on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of the disease. There is also more information on publicly funded drug coverage for Canadians and a free online course (4). I think it also important to note that this disease isn’t an exclusively Baby Boomer issue. The disease does also affect IV drug users and those in inner cities and prisons, and of course there are those that are younger and have contracted it from other sources. In America IV drug users have a 60% infection rate and prisons have a 50% infection rate (6). Overall this is a disease that deserves our attention and where education and awareness play a key role in the diagnosis and treatment of it.