Why Is Hepatitis C on the Rise in 20- to 29-Year-Olds?

Who needs screening, and why
Why Is Hepatitis C on the Rise in 20- to 29-Year-Olds?

Hepatitis C, a viral infection of the liver, has hit the baby boomer generation hard. You probably have seen appeals urging older adults to get screened. But alarming statistics from the last five years show the infection is rapidly on the rise in another age group — young adults between ages 20 and 29.

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Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the number of new hepatitis C infections has nearly tripled in the last five years.

According to the CDC, hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease. A majority of deaths were among people who were age 55 and older. While baby boomers are still the one group most affected, the rapid rise of the disease among younger people is concerning.

So what is causing this uptick?

Drug use and Hep C

The primary reason why hepatitis C is on the rise in the 20-29 age group is because of increasing drug use in this group, says hepatologist William Carey, MD. Today, the disease is commonly transmitted through infected blood as a result of sharing needles to inject drugs or even accidental needle sticks during drug use, he says.

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The effects are widespread, as injection drug use increases throughout a broad swath of the United States.

“Hepatitis C is on the rise in populations with increasing intravenous drug use: younger people, as well as white and non-urban populations living primarily in Appalachia, the Midwest and New England,” Dr. Carey says.

Although the statistics are alarming, the CDC findings on younger populations and the opioid epidemic are not surprising, Dr. Carey says.

Safe and effective Hep C treatments

Despite that dire prediction, there is good news. Hepatitis C is very easy to treat, Dr. Carey says.

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“There are several oral products available that are highly effective,” he says. “You take a single pill for eight weeks, or sometimes 12 weeks. It will cure over 95% of infections of hepatitis C.”

The two biggest barriers to eradication of the disease, however, are identifying who has it and the high cost of the medication. “Insurers also say if you drink alcohol, take drugs or have thyroiditis, they will not pay for treatment,” Dr. Carey says.

Screening is critical

About 70% of people who have Hepatitis C are baby boomers. Many people in this age group don’t even know they have it because you can carry the virus for many years without any symptoms, Dr. Carey says.

Dr. Carey advises people to get screened if they were born between 1945 and 1965. People of any age should get screened if they are drug users.

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