You’ve heard that all baby boomers need to get tested for hepatitis C, a common viral infection. But here’s what is happening way too often—people get that initial screening test, but when the results come back positive, about half of those infected don’t bother to take the simple yet all-important next step! This oversight can prove deadly…which is really a shame because, thanks to new therapies, hepatitis C often can be cured.

What’s going on? The hepatitis C virus (HCV) can remain hidden in the body for years before causing any symptoms. That’s why up to 85% of the estimated 3.2 million Americans infected with HCV don’t even know that they have it…until decades later, by which time the virus has caused serious liver damage. As scar tissue replaces the liver’s healthy tissue, a condition called cirrhosis, the organ can no longer function properly. HCV is the number-one reason for liver transplants…it also can cause liver cancer…and it leads to about 15,000 deaths in the US each year.

In about 20% of cases, the immune system fights off the virus on its own—but for the remaining 80% of people, HCV infection becomes a chronic and potentially deadly condition. And once infected, a person may transmit the virus to anyone who comes in contact with his or her blood.

A simple blood test that detects the presence of antibodies indicates whether a person has ever been infected with HCV, but the antibody test does not reveal whether the infection went away. For that, a second blood test is needed—the HCV RNA test (also called the HCV nucleic acid test), which detects the presence of the virus itself in the blood and indicates whether the infection is still active. If the HCV RNA test is positive, essential treatment can begin.

Worrisome new study: Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed six years’ worth of HCV data from eight different regions across the country, which identified more than 217,000 HCV patients. The shocker was that, of those patients, only 50.8% had undergone the HCV RNA test—there was no evidence that the other 49.2% had ever received that crucial RNA test after their antibody test came back positive! Without that second test, it’s highly unlikely that those patients got the treatment that most of them undoubtedly needed.


Baby boomers, meaning people born between 1945 and 1965, are particularly vulnerable to HCV. Reasons: Many were exposed to the virus before prevention programs (such as testing donated blood for the presence of the virus before using it for transfusions) were put in place…and many engaged in risky behaviors—meaning, multiple sex partners, illicit drug use—back in their youth. That’s why the CDC and now the US Preventive Services Task Force, too, recommend that all boomers get the initial HCV antibody-screening test. Screening also is warranted for anyone who has a history of blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to 1992, when donors started getting screened for HCV…health-care workers who experience a needlestick injury…anyone with a history of sharing syringes…children born to HCV-positive mothers…and patients with HIV. (People born before 1945 are not considered to be at much risk because they were less likely to have been part of the IV drug scene and sexual revolution of the 1960s…and because those who do have HCV most likely have developed symptoms of liver damage by now.)

Bottom line: If you’ve never had an HCV antibody test (or don’t know whether you’ve had one), get one. Any doctor can order this blood test, which is simple and fairly inexpensive ($12 to $100, depending on your location and doctor) and may be covered by your insurance. If your HCV antibody test is positive, follow up with a hepatitis C RNA test to determine whether your infection is still active. Thanks to new therapies, the disease often can be cured—and the sooner you are diagnosed and treated, the more likely you are to recover.