May 11, 2012

Guest Commentary: Baby boomers and hepatitis C in Colorado

Posted: 05/11/2012 01:00:00 AM MDT

By Nancy Steinfurth

Colorado's "baby boom" generation faces a ticking health care time bomb — and employers have the opportunity this year to help protect the health of their workers and potentially cut their company's health care costs at the same time.

The challenge that employers and baby boom employees alike face is that many Americans born between 1946 and 1964 have the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and don't know it. A quick blood test and a fast diagnosis results in a far more rapid and less expensive course of treatment. These proactive steps not only save lives but in turn help reduce costs and throw a lasso on soaring insurance premiums.

If it were as simple as all that, we know companies would be clamoring to raise workers' awareness. Unfortunately, myth and misinformation about HCV have left millions of Americans blissfully unaware that a serious and life-threatening disease may be brewing inside them — and by the time symptoms are noticeable, it can often be too late.

That's why exploding the myths surrounding HCV are so critical and having the imprimatur of company leaders in businesses large and small in this fight can make a massive difference.

Let's tackle the biggest myth head on. A number of baby boomers go untested because they assume that the only way to have contracted hep C is through intravenous drug use. Wrong. Many Americans — including many veterans — who had transfusions or blood products prior to 1992 were infected with HCV before donated blood was accurately and adequately screened for the disease. Other risk factors include tattooing in unsafe settings and having been on long-term dialysis.

These myths have consequences. Statistics show that more two-thirds of Americans with HCV are baby boomers and 75 percent of those with the disease are living their lives unaware.

Ignorance is not bliss.

Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease prevalent — and widely undiagnosed — among baby boomers, with experts estimating that two-thirds of those with hep c were born in the baby boom years of 1946 to 1964. In raw numbers, of the 102 million Americans age48 to 66, an estimated 1.3 million are infected with hepatitis C virus but remain undiagnosed. Hepatitis C ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that attacks the liver. It results from infection with the hepatitis C virus, which is spread through contact with the blood of an infected person.

The facts are that symptoms of hep C may not appear for 20 years or more and the later that the disease is diagnosed, the more difficult — and expensive — it is to treat.

That's why a federal strategy released in recent days recommends placing a priority on screening Americans by age, moving beyond the less effective method of screening by so-called "risk group." A new national study showed that screening all American baby boomers could save 48,000 lives.

Instead of allowing this status quo to continue, common-sense tells us to focus on the age group that faces the most dire challenges. That's the message we at Hep C Connection, a statewide organization that educates the general public about hepatitis C and provides resources and support for those affected by the virus, are sharing with employers throughout Colorado.

By focusing on this critical age group in every workplace, employers could literally save lives. Studies show that by raising awareness, employers could help ten times more baby boomers to get tested and three times as many men and women being diagnosed and getting early treatment.

At Hep C Connection, we provide free testing in the metro-Denver area and we connect patients with testing locations in other parts of Colorado which, in most cases, provide the screening free of charge.

The prevention of serious, life-threatening conditions as a result of the early screening is huge with, for example, an estimated 28,000 prevented cases of liver cancer and 6,000 liver transplants being avoided.

In addition to the benefit to lives saved and diseases prevented, the cost of treating these and other serious conditions is very high. For employers, this means the savings of billions of dollars in employee health care costs — and health insurance premiums — going forward.

That is perhaps the most important, common-sense reason for business owners and executives to raise awareness among their baby boomer employees. But there is a bottom-line, dollars-and-sense reason as well. National studies show that age-based testing would save billions of dollars, including more than $4 billion in savings from the prevention of advanced live disease.

Coloradans living longer lives and employers lowering health care costs. By sounding the hep C alarm to baby boomers across our state, businesses can do well by doing good.

Nancy Steinfurth is excutive director of Hep C Connection, a statewide organization that educates the general public about hepatitis C and provides resources and support for those affected by the virus. (

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an online-only column and has not been edited


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