Stephanie Dwilson

Why Hepatitis C Is a Critical Issue for Employers

Helping employees with hepatitis C involves not only offering a high-quality health care plan that will aid treatment but also understanding how hepatitis C uniquely affects different generations, from baby boomers to millennials.

Baby Boomers and Hepatitis C

Baby boomers — the generation that grew up with the Beatles, Woodstock and the Cold War — are increasingly associated with hepatitis C infections. Three and a half million Americans are now living with hepatitis C, and 81 percent of that number are baby boomers, Medscape reports. Americans born between 1945 and 1965 are six times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the CDC estimates that 70 percent of baby boomers infected have moderate to severe liver disease.

How did so many baby boomers contract the hepatitis C infection? Epidemiologists point to infected blood products as the major contributor. Prior to 1992, many people were unknowingly infected through blood transfusions, surgeries and other situations where contaminated blood products were shared. Infections continued to occur until testing was perfected, ultimately eliminating hepatitis C from the transfusion blood supply, according to the HCV Advocate.

Younger Generations and Hepatitis C

But hepatitis C risks aren’t limited to baby boomers. A younger generation is now impacted by an increase in hepatitis C infections linked to the opioid epidemic. Americans aged 20 to 29 are now experiencing the highest rate of infection, Medscape reports.

Starting in 2015, a large increase of acute cases of hepatitis C were identified among people who inject drugs (oxymorphone and heroin) and who shared needles. According to John Ward, MD, from the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC, “This opioid crisis that we are experiencing in the United States is the main driver of increased hepatitis C incidence in this country.” Abuse patterns suggest for that many injected drug users, illegal drug use began with prescription opioid misuse, as Medscape notes.

How Employers Can Help

Employers can play a positive role in fighting this epidemic and helping staff of all ages. Here are a few ideas to help you get started:

  • Encourage employees to get tested for hepatitis C. What employees don’t know can hurt them. Testing is the first step toward treatment.
  • Help reduce the stigma that sometimes surrounds hepatitis C. Popular perceptions of hepatitis C include associations with “risky behaviors” like unsafe sex or tattooing. Educate employees that infections happen in different ways, many of which occurred before hepatitis C was identified and blood testing became available. Helping to lessen the stigma can encourage employees to contact a doctor.
  • Review your organization’s health coverage for hepatitis C testing and treatment. Make sure hepatitis C testing is a covered benefit. New drugs to treat the infection are extremely effective, have shorter treatment times and entail fewer side effects, but they can be very expensive. Talk with your pharmacy provider to understand how these drugs are covered and what the employee cost share is.
  • Take an integrated approach to hepatitis C. Make sure your medical and pharmacy benefits are well-coordinated.

Helping employees with hepatitis C is critical — this is not an illness to take lightly. Deaths from hepatitis C now exceed those from all other infections tracked by the CDC. At least 50 percent of Americans living with hepatitis C don’t know they have it, the CDC warns, and the infection silently does liver damage while causing no symptoms. As an employer, you can make a big difference just by encouraging education and testing.

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