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Why hepatitis C is getting younger

Use of shared needles spreading infection to a different age group, experts say

The two women showed up at the Rural AIDS Action Network office in downtown Duluth, one providing moral support for the other.

Both were in their 20s, executive director Mary McCarthy said. The woman who hadn’t been feeling well was encouraged by her friend to take advantage of free, confidential testing at the office for hepatitis C. To help assuage her friend’s fears, the other woman agreed to be tested, too.

Both tested positive.

“That was challenging for staff because they were in their 20s, and they knew it was going to have a longer-term impact,” McCarthy said.

It’s becoming an increasingly plausible scenario, according to those tracking the potentially dangerous liver disease that’s spread from human to human through blood.

“Initially it was more middle-aged people that had been exposed from blood transfusions and maybe service-related,” said Sherry Johnson, a nurse practitioner with St. Luke’s Infectious Disease Associates. “And now I would say that maybe 25 percent of the people I see are middle-aged and older, and otherwise they’re younger.”

Hepatitis C long has been the province of baby boomers, so much so that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone born from 1945 to 1965 be tested for the virus. It’s prevalent in that age range because that generation was young at a time when there was less awareness of the dangers of blood-borne pathogens, said Genny Grilli, an epidemiologist for the Minnesota Department of Health. Before 1992, hepatitis C was mostly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, according to the CDC. It also could be spread through contact with blood during military service, Grilli added.But for a younger generation, there’s a different source.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s all recreational drug use,” Johnson said.

The median age of people living with hepatitis C in Minnesota was still 58 in 2017, according to health department data. But Grilli noted that sharp rises occurred for new cases involving people in their teens, 20s and 30s.

“We’re diagnosing more and more of the young population,” she said.

According to the CDC, widespread screening of the blood supply in the U.S. has virtually eliminated blood transfusions and organ transplants as a source of infection for hepatitis C. Today, most who become infected do so by sharing needles or other equipment to prepare or inject drugs, the CDC confirms.

Read on: Why hepatitis C is getting younger

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