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Baby boomers should get tested for hepatitis C, federal officials say

May 2, 2012 | 10:52 am

"It hangs over your head," said Harold Owens, who gave up heroin in the 1980s and tries to maintain a positive attitude about living with hepatitis C. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Federal health officials plan to issue new recommendations that all baby boomers get tested for hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can lead to liver cancer, liver failure and death. 

Many boomers unknowingly contracted the virus in younger years from using drugs or having blood transfusions before screening was improved during the AIDS crisis. Unaware of the risk and without symptoms, most have never been tested for hepatitis C and don't know they have it. The disease — primarily contracted through blood — often remains hidden for decades while it slowly destroys liver cells. There is no vaccine. 

"Hepatitis C is really a stealth virus," said Elizabeth Bancroft, medical epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "It can live in you for many, many, many years."

There are at least 530,000 people living with hepatitis C in California, including an estimated 134,000 in Los Angeles County, according to health officials. 

Harold Owens, who lives in Los Angeles and works at the Recording Academy, is among those paying the consequences for decisions made in his youth. He developed a heroin habit as a young man but says he hasn't touched drugs in nearly a quarter-century. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2001. Now 59, he suspects he may have contracted the disease from sharing infected needles.

Owens underwent treatment that slowed the disease's progression but didn't expel it from his body. He still worries about what it could do to his liver. "It hangs over your head," he said.

"I understand the risks now," said Owens, who directs MusiCares, a foundation for musicians dealing with addiction. "I didn't then. Nobody did."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to issue a recommendation this year that all baby boomers get tested. Those at risk include anyone who has used injection drugs, received a blood transfusion before 1992, are HIV positive or received a tattoo with non-sterile instruments.

More information about hepatitis C and where to find testing can be found on the California Department of Public Health website. 

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-- Anna Gorman

Photo: "It hangs over your head," said Harold Owens, who gave up heroin in the 1980s and tries to maintain a positive attitude about living with hepatitis C. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

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