Hepatitis C testing rate low and knowledge of the infection poor in the US "baby boomer" generation

Michael Carter
18 May 2012

Only a quarter of US individuals in the generation most likely to have hepatitis C have ever been tested for the infection, results of a survey conducted by the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) show.

Moreover, 80% of patients in the “baby boomer” generation (born between 1945 and 1965) did not consider themselves to be at any risk of becoming infected. This is despite the findings of a recent US mortality survey showed that hepatitis C deaths were concentrated in the 45 to 64 age group.  

An estimated five million people in the US are infected with hepatitis C and up to 50% of these infections are diagnosed.

Surveillance data suggest that 82% of infections are concentrated in the baby boomer generation. Three-quarters of hepatitis C-related deaths also occur in this age group.

Hepatitis C screening strategies are risk based, focusing on people with a history of injecting drug use. The authors of one recent study commented that this approach had been “notably unsuccessful, as few have been screened for risk and are still only tested when they have symptoms…few physicians ask about the major risk factor for HCV, injecting drug use, and few interviewees wish to admit this behavior”.

Some doctors are therefore advocating an 'age-based' approach to testing, with efforts focusing on patients aged 45 to 64, the generation with the highest prevalence of the infection.

The results of the latest survey suggest that there is very low awareness of hepatitis C in this baby boomer generation.

“Alarmingly…results revealed that while baby boomers are most at risk of having hepatitis C, the majority are unaware of their risk and have never been or are unsure if they have been tested,” states a factsheet accompanying the results of the study. “This lack of knowledge has significant implications because, of the nearly 5 million Americans infected with hepatitis C, 82% are baby boomers.”

The online survey was conducted by the market research company Harris Interactive on behalf of the AGA. A total of 1006 individuals born between 1945 and 1965 completed a questionnaire enquiring about their knowledge of hepatitis C, as well as their testing history and any discussions about the infection with health-care providers.

“The survey was developed to determine how knowledgeable baby boomers across the US are about hepatitis C, to reveal where the lack of understanding for hepatitis C lies among this at risk population and identify where more education and action are needed,” says the factsheet.

Even though over eight in ten hepatitis C infections are in patients aged 47 to 67, the majority (80%) of study participants did not consider themselves as being at risk of the disease. Only 17% were aware that their generation had the highest prevalence of the infection.

The participants were also largely unaware about many important facts about hepatitis C.

Crucially, only 18% were aware that the infection could be cured. Half believed that prevalence of the infection was similar across age groups, with 25% stating that the risk was greatest for those in their 30s and early 40s.

Findings of the study suggested that no more than a quarter of participants had ever been tested for hepatitis C. Moreover, 83% stated that they had never even discussed the infection with a healthcare provider.

When they did occur, these discussions were clearly beneficial. Individuals who had talked to their doctor about hepatitis C felt more knowledgeable about the infection (76 vs 30%) and were considerably more likely to have been tested (64 vs 18%).

The factsheet publicising the findings of the survey can be downloaded here.