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Hepatitis C: The Smoldering Epidemic: February 23, 2013

It’s estimated 4-million Americans have hepatitis C- and most of them don’t know it. That’s why it’s called the smoldering epidemic.

“The scary thing is, people really don’t have symptoms until much later in the course of the disease.  So the things that usually bring them to their family doctor or a specialist are fatigue, jaundice, which is a discoloration of the skin, or they have ascites, which means that their bellies are full of fluid,” says Arlene Wright, nurse practitioner with Lee Memorial Health System.

The magnitude of the problem was made clear last fall when the CDC made a sweeping recommendation: that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested.

“That’s where the emphasis is on the baby boomers.  Tattoos, multiple body piercings, sexual partners, multiple sexual partners that puts people at risk.  That’s when the CDC looks at statistics, they look at certain high risk behaviors and what groups fall into that,” says Wright.

That includes an estimated 79 million people- who came of age during a time of liberation and may now find their behavior early in life is constraining their future. Transmitted through blood, the virus is behind a 20-fold increase in liver cancer.

“It is still the number one cause of liver transplantation to date.  And cirrhosis, which can cause liver failure, or liver cancer, which are two both very, very fatal,” says Wright.

There are several strains of hepatitis C, some more treatable than others. All require intense and prolonged drug therapies. The earlier it’s diagnosed the better.

“The screening is a blood test and it’s looking for the antibody,” says Wright.

With two-thirds of cases showing up in baby boomers, there are a lot of places to look.