By Erin Delmore
It’s called the silent virus. Hepatitis C can take decades to show itself by yellowing skin and causing fever, fatigue and joint pain.
“It’s possible to be infected in the 70s or 80s and just have a positive blood test showing that you have Hepatitis C,” said Holy Name Medical Center Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Benjamin De La Rosa.
The chronic virus targets the liver causing damage — even cancer. One group is especially vulnerable.
About 3.5 million Americans are infected with Hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Around 75 percent of them are baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965.
That’s because of the protections we have today against blood-to-blood contact — like condoms, needle exchange programs and screenings for blood and organ donors — just didn’t exist in decades past.
“Hepatitis C is spread through blood contact, like people that inject drugs, people that have a blood transfusion. It has been transmitted from mother to baby and through sexual transmission, but these are less efficient ways to be transmitted,” De La Rosa said.
While we don’t routinely screen for Hepatitis C, the CDC recommends all baby boomers get tested. It’s as simple as a pin prick in the arm. The state Senate Committee approved legislation last month requiring hospitals to offer the screening to all baby boomers who come through the door. Holy Name Medical Center in Bergen County is one step ahead of the game. It’s offering the screening to everyone born between 1945 and 1965 who comes to the hospital for free, thanks to a grant from the pharmaceutical company Gilead.
“Eventually, though, we hope to secure more funding and be able to expand the screening to all other community members who do not need to come to the ED, but they will hopefully come to Holy Name for screening Hepatitis C but we’re not there yet,” Focus Project Leader Kyung Hee Choi said.
Hospital officials say early detection is key — not just for an individual’s treatment, but to reduce the spread of the virus. Holy Name hopes to screen 9,000 people this year.