What Are My Risks & Why?
By Andrew Pugliese MD
I remember in 1997, when my sister and I found out that our mother had hepatitis C, after the initial shock wore off, it was even more surprising to find out how our mother became infected with hepatitis C. It seems as if Mom became infected with hepatitis C when she was vaccinated at the age of 7 in Italy for smallpox. To my mother, this was no big deal, considering half of the other children in her village all came down with hepatitis. She clearly remembered turning yellow and being sick to her stomach for approximately 2 weeks. At that time, this seemed to be a minor consolation to the alternative, which was becoming infected with smallpox.
Fortunately, neither my sister nor I are infected with hepatitis C, most likely due to the fact that we were both born cesarean, thereby reducing the risk of blood exchange in the birth canal. We don’t know if my father was infected with hepatitis C because he passed in 1995. Interestingly enough, in the 60s, my mother had donated blood several times. In addition, she had undergone several surgeries and the risk of surgeons developing what was then known as hepatitis non-A non-B was quite prevalent due to needlestick injuries.
The reason I bring this story up is to demonstrate the need for people in my age category, the baby boomers, to be tested for hepatitis C. Growing up in the 50s and 60s was a lot of different than it is today. Needles and surgical instruments were not disposed of, they were simply sterilized. Doctors and dentists did not use rubber or latex gloves. Barbers used a straight razor that was cleaned with a towel and then reused. By today’s standards, this would be considered criminal because they all carry a risk for transmitting hepatitis C, but, back then, it was a way of life.
Today, hepatitis C infections carry a nasty stigma. You either received it from doing intravenous drugs, illegal tattoos or unprotected sex.
This is because we view hepatitis C through the prism of today’s standards. However, life was totally different 50-60 years ago because we did not have the medical wherewithal that we do have today. If you don’t believe me, watch a few episodes of “Mad Men” on AMC, especially the first two seasons.
There is one other thought about my mother’s story, and that is that it’s one of maybe millions that were similar back in that time. None of this was done maliciously, it was done out of pure innocence because they just didn’t know about it back then.
And it is for this reason that it is important for every baby boomer to be tested for hepatitis C.
Chances are, if you are a baby boomer, you will be negative for hepatitis C but, if it turns out you are positive, there are new treatment modalities out there that can actually cure hepatitis C today. So, if you were born between the years 1945 and 1965 and you have never been tested for hepatitis C, I would highly consider getting tested to have that peace of mind.
Thank you for reading. I hoped I helped shed some light on an issue that gets little thought for my generation. Questions welcome!