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What Hepatitis C May Tell Us About Drug Use And Addiction

Hepatitis C is commonly spread through the shared use of needles to inject drugs.
Hepatitis C is commonly spread through the shared use of needles to inject drugs.

U.S. health officials recommended this week that baby boomers — that is, anyone born between 1945 and 1965 — should get tested for hepatitis C. Why? New treatment options mean it will be possible to cure many more of the infected before they develop deadly diseases of the liver.

But there is an interesting story lurking beneath the headlines.

Why baby boomers? It turns out that boomers are five times more likely than the population at large to carry the hepatitis C virus.

Why should that be? We don't know exactly, but a big part of the story is drug use. Lots of baby boomers shared needles back in the 1970s and '80s.

Here's where it gets interesting. Why do we need to test everybody in this age group? Because the target group — those infected by hepatitis C — blend in and look like everybody else. They don't know they are sick, and they don't carry any visible mark. (Of course, donated blood wasn't routinely screened for hepatitis C until 1992, so many people got the virus through transfusions or transplants.)

But stop and think about it. This means the target group — a group presumably consisting in good measure of former drug users — looks like the rest of us. Not only are they alive, this implies, but they are no longer using drugs! If they were, we would need to target only the drug-injecting populations.

What makes this remarkable is that it seems to imply this large population of drug users never got addicted, or that, if they did, they beat their addictions. The bottom line: They used drugs then, but are not addicts now.

This is great news! And it seems to run counter to some pretty widely shared ideas that we have about drug use and addiction. Public service announcements aimed at children, at least when I was growing up, suggested that if you do it once, you'll get hooked. And the medical establishment insists that once an addict, always an addict. Addiction, after all, they say, is a chronic incurable disease of the brain.

Maybe things aren't so bleak.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.

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