A health crisis is barreling down on the free-love generation. Reported cases of hepatitis C, an infectious virus that is the leading cause of liver transplants and cancers, are skyrocketing among South Florida baby boomers this year, and public health officials are warning that everyone in this age group should consider themselves at risk.
There were 1,168 new chronic hepatitis C cases logged in Palm Beach County so far this year, according to state health officials, as compared to 722 during the same time period last year. In Broward County, there were 1,077 new cases this year, compared to 683 last year.
Among this year's cases, 45 percent in Palm Beach and 60 percent in Broward involved people age 50 or older – higher than the state average. State officials say about 40 percent of the 300,000 Floridians with chronic hep C are boomers.
Yet many boomers still appear to be uninformed, in denial or too ashamed to confront medical reality. A new survey of 400 Miami-Dade and Broward County residents, between 48 and 68 years old, found only 20 percent were aware that their age group was five times more likely to be hepatitis C carriers, regardles of their health or past lifestyle habits.
Sixty-eight percent of those responding to the survey, by pharmaceutical manufacturer Genentech Inc., said they associated the virus with drug addicts and alcoholics. And 42 percent said they would rather admit to having a DUI than a hepatitis C infection.
Dr. Kalyan Ram Bhamidimarri, a transplant hepatologist and gastroenterologist at the University of Miami Hospital, said he found it "shocking" that 62 percent surveyed had never been tested, "even though 100 percent of them should be."
"Because of these attitudes and unawareness, we are going to end up with more illnesses and more deaths," Bhamidimarri said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling hepatitis C an "unrecognized health crisis," last August advised that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 should have a one-time hep C antibody blood test regardless of their present health or past lifestyle. Boomers are particularly vulnerable, the CDC said, because they came of age when American culture embraced sexual freedom and drug use, and the absence of widespread blood supply testing until 1992.
The virus is passed by blood-to-blood contact, most commonly by sharing needles. But people who received tainted blood supplies years ago, had tattoos or piercings done with unsterile needles, or unknowingly had sex with someone infected could end up with hepatitis C.
Tim O'Connor, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, said the increase in cases is due to testing laboratories now being required to automatically report positive results to the health department.
It also hints at how many of our grandmas and grandpas may be unknowingly walking around with the infectious virus. State officials estimate two-thirds to three-fourths of Florida residents with hepatitis C are undiagnosed.
The fact that even boomers who are aware of hepatitis continue to ignore the public health advisories doesn't surprise Phil Younger. A 64-year-old substance abuse counselor at a private Pompano Beach treatment center, he runs one of South Florida's few hep C support groups – and has the virus himself.
"This is a disease that's associated with junkies and prostitutes. I have patients who know they are at risk and they still won't be tested," said Younger. "They just don't want to know."
Younger figures he got it in the late 1960s, when like many of his "hippie" friends he led a hard-partying lifestyle, but didn't realize he was infected until decades later. Some people, when they first get sick, "feel like they got the flu but then it fades," Younger said. Others have no symptoms for years until they suddenly discover, too late, the infection has sparked liver cancer or cirrhosis. Yellowing of the skin, unexplained weight loss, fatigue and abdominal swelling are among the signs of serious liver disease.
Bhamidimarri said primary care physicians need to stress the importance of hep C screenings to their patients, especially boomers. Almost three-fourths of the survey respondents said they never had spoken to their doctor about it.
The simple blood test can be done in a doctor's office or at public health departments. Medicare will not pay unless needed for a diagnosis when signs of disease are present. But many insurance policies do cover the tests, and prevention groups or nonprofits sometimes offer them for free or at a discount.
Early detection means patients can get lifesaving treatments, Bhamidimarri said. The CDC estimates about 15,000 people nationwide die annually from hepatitis-related illnesses, three-fourths of them boomers, with that rate projected to steadily rise over the next two decades.
Cythnia Peterson, executive vice president of the Broward County Medical Association, said the organization intially gave out information to its members following the CDC advisory, encouraging doctors to talk to their patients.
There also was a large South Florida symposium last April featuring Gregg Allman, a hepatitis C positive musician and prevention spokesman. "But it's kind of died down after that," Peterson said.
The Florida Department of Health in Broward distributes hepatitis information at community health fairs and events, and placed public service ads featuring baby boomers on cable networks and 50 bus routes. Health departments in both counties also featured free testing in honor of World Hepatitis Day on Sunday.
But Anya Thornberry, senior director of client services at Broward House, said there is far less funding for hepatitis C education and prevention than for HIV, which contributes to keeping the former in the shadows. Her nonprofit, South Florida's oldest HIV/AIDS community service agency, recently received a small hepatitis C grant for testing – but targeting 18-to-30 year olds, not boomers.
"Everyone knows to get HIV tested. But no one knows about hep C," Thornberry said.
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To learn more about public health department testing, call 954-467-4700 in Broward County and 561-840-4500 in Palm Beach County. The nonprofit HELP-4-HEP telephone counseling service, which can steer hepatitis C patients to resources, is 877-435-7443.