All baby boomers should be screened for hepatitis C, a potentially deadly virus that can lead to liver failure, federal health officials said Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 undergo a one-time blood test for the virus. About 75 percent of the 3.2 million Americans infected with hepatitis C belong to that generation.
Baby boomers are particularly at-risk because they came of age prior to the medical and lifestyle precautions that surfaced during the HIV outbreak in the 1980s. They weren't aware of the dangers of sharing needles, for example, and hospitals didn't take the same precautions during blood transfusions, experts said.
In addition, reliable tests to screen the blood supply for hepatitis C were not available until the early 1990s.
Hepatitis C can remain undetected for decades, silently damaging a patient's liver.
Alcohol and certain medications can hasten the damage, making it critical for patients to know whether they carry the virus.
"The sooner you know, the sooner you can protect your life and liver," CDC Director Thomas Frieden said.
Deaths from hepatitis C increased by 50 percent, to 15,000, between 1999 and 2007, prompting the CDC to call hepatitis C an "unrecognized health crisis in the United States."
Martha Saly, director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, applauded the CDC's announcement. She was successfully treated for hepatitis C in the late 1990s after testing positive on a routine screening.
Saly, a 61-year-old northern California resident, suspects she contracted the virus when she got an at-home tattoo before a rock concert as a teenager, but there's no way to know for certain.
"It's not about how you got it, it's about when you got it," Saly said.
The CDC predicts that the new testing recommendation will identify 800,000 additional cases and prevent more than 120,000 deaths.
The latest therapies, which include oral medications and weekly shots, have success rates of roughly 80 percent, experts said.
"It will be an influx, but in some ways, for us, it will be a welcome influx," said Michael Fallon, director of gastroenterology, hepatology and nutrition at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. "The hope is that we can prevent end-stage liver disease."
CDC's previous recommendations called for testing only individuals with known risk factors for hepatitis C, including intravenous drug use and blood transfusions.
The initial screening test for antibodies to the virus is relatively inexpensive and covered by most insurance plans, CDC officials said.
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