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Columnist John Paradis: Hepatitis C test important for veterans

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

I’m one of the few, the proud … the baby boomer who actually still watches the evening news.

There’s not many of us left, according to Madison Avenue bean counters, who say the overall audience for the 6:30 p.m. network newscasts continues to decline. And more than half the viewers who remain loyal to the “Big 3” – CBS, NBC, and ABC – are baby boomers.

If you’ve tuned into a recent newscast, you’ll also notice another dynamic at play. At nearly every commercial break, America’s mighty pharmaceutical industry is catering to boomers’ every senescent need, it seems.

As we boomers enter our golden years, it seems every drug company in America is targeting us. From Humira to Keytruda to Cialis to Lyrica, there is a wonder drug for every facet of our coming war with the grim reaper.

One ad in particular really hooked me. The 60-second commercial starts out with a 60-something woman staring up through the sky in what appears to be the eerily dark crooked forest in Poland. New-age piano music plays in the background. A soothing male voiceover begins: “For millions of baby boomers, there’s a virus out there. A virus like HIV but that hasn’t been talked about much…”

That’s a hell of a way to introduce the liver disease now known as hepatitis C, but it got my attention. And truth be told, I had no idea as a baby boomer, born between 1945 and 1965, I stand a one in 30 chance of having the virus.

Like so many others, I always thought hepatitis was a liver infection contracted through intravenous drug users, but as the national ad campaign emphasizes, the tenacious virus was most commonly spread before the 1990s through blood-to-blood contact. Some of the more common transmissions included blood transfusions, dental procedures, the use of contaminated needles while getting a tattoo, or needle stick injuries in medical settings.

That’s frightening enough. But then you find out that most people who are infected don’t even know they have it. This silent virus can lay dormant for years, even decades. Left untreated, over time, hepatitis C can damage the liver, causing cirrhosis or cancer.

Now there’s a nationwide campaign to publicize “Hep C,” particularly among the groups most affected, which includes veterans who, I’m told, have a five times greater risk of having the disease due to a number of factors, including a higher rate of blood transfusions than the general public and a greater proclivity toward getting tattoos. Many veterans also experienced battlefield medical procedures.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that all baby boomers be tested for the disease so if they test positive, they can be treated before the infection does its worst harm.

About 300,000 Americans, including thousands of veterans, are believed to have contracted the virus through transfusions prior to 1992 when more effective screening of the blood supply was put in place.

Victor Rivera Ayala is one of them. The Army veteran contracted hepatitis C while stationed in Germany in the 1980s after he lost a lot of blood during surgery in an Army hospital. He never thought about hepatitis until a VA doctor told him he should get tested.

He’s now gone through the regimen of the VA’s newest drug treatment plan with good results.

Like me, Ayala has seen the new hepatitis C ads, too, but he fears that many veterans are still reluctant to talk about hepatitis C because of the stigma about risk factors, some of which come with negative connotations.

“Actually, I know many people that have hepatitis C, but they don’t want to get the treatment because they have the wrong ideas about it,” says Ayala, who lives at the Salvo House in Northampton. “I tell them: Get tested, the side effects are small.”

The VA has long led the country in screening for and treating hepatitis C. New highly effective antiviral drugs have resulted in very high cure rates among patients in the VA’s national health care system. In western Massachusetts, the VA is seeing a 96 percent cure rate, says Mary Howes, a registered nurse at the VA medical center in Leeds, who is also the hepatitis C program coordinator for all VA medical facilities in New England.

Howes, who at 28 is most certainly not a baby boomer, says the key to the new campaign is to explain to patients that they should be tested based on their birth date alone, rather than assumptions about their past behavior or medical history.

“We’re not asking you how you got it – we’re just treating it,” she says. The screening for hepatitis C, a simple one-time blood test, should be as routine as tests for other preventive care things like your cholesterol or blood-sugar levels.

The new drug regimens the VA is using do not contain interferon, which, in previous treatment regimens, had terrible side effects, and many people wouldn’t complete the treatment, Howes says. The newer drugs have minimal side effects.

Those of us born in the post-World War II period of our nation are now in the target audience for an onslaught of medical ads. If you believe everything in the ads, it’s like we’re now hitting the beaches to fight battle with the likes of arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, and yes, even stealth diseases like hepatitis C.

It’s no wonder that the generation that grew up with television is now being seduced with drug ads in our geezer years. Draw your own conclusions and ask your doctor or pharmacist if you want more information about what you are seeing.

And, hey, at least the ads are less scary than the news they are interrupting.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He is a veterans’ outreach coordinator for VA New England Health Care System