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Baby boomer Hepatitis C epidemic linked to medical procedures, not risky behaviour

BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS study finds many baby boomers could have contracted virus in childhood, urges testing.

Dr. Julio Montaner, Clinical Director, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro File

Dr. Julio Montaner, Clinical Director, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS.

British Columbia researchers have shattered the prevailing stigma that most baby boomers diagnosed with hepatitis C contracted it via risky behaviour.

Dr. Julio Montaner and his team at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS partnered with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to find out why 75 per cent of the 4.6 million adults infected with virus in North America were born between 1945 and 1964.

“The theory was that in North America the Hepatitis C epidemic in baby boomers was due to some behavioural indiscretions that generation had in their younger years,” said Montaner, referring to injections drug use, needle sharing and risky sexual encounters. “That understanding led to the significant development of stigma around Hep C.”

But by tracking the history of the epidemic and studying virus sequences in more than 45,000 records, researchers believe they’ve put that stigma to an end.

Their findings, published Wednesday in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, could have greater and more wide-ranging implications.

Analyses show that the hepatitis C epidemic was at its height between 1940 and 1965, 15 years earlier than previously believed.

The exponential growth of the epidemic soon subsided after that period.

That means many baby boomers that contracted the disease could have been exposed to it in childhood, and not during their late-teens or early-20s.

Montaner believes the ill-informed medical procedures of the day could be just as, or more, responsible for the epidemic as any risky behaviours.

“At that time, it was accepted practice to re-use glass and metal syringes. They were boiled and reused but boiling them does not get rid of hepatitis C,” said Montaner. “I remember even in some places disposable syringes would be reused because that was just the procedure at that time.”

Because of the nature of the disease (which can manifest itself in the form of cirrhosis, liver cancer and other life-threatening conditions decades later), Montaner says many baby boomers may not know they’ve either been exposed to hepatitis C or are infected.

He’s urging all baby boomers to get tested, without the stigma or sense of guilt historically associated with the virus.

“Everyone [in that age group] should be screened actively and pro-actively for hepatitis C,” he said.

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