WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
May 18, 2012 -- One in 30 baby boomers may be infected with the hepatitis C virus, but few know it until it's too late for their livers.
In the wake of new statistics showing more than 2 million baby boomers in the U.S. are infected with hepatitis C, the CDC is proposing new guidelines calling for all adults of that generation to be tested for the virus.
Officials say baby boomers, the generation born from 1945 through 1965, now account for more than 75% of all Americans living with the virus. But recent studies show few are aware they are infected or at risk for infection.
"Identifying these hidden infections early will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment, before they develop life-threatening liver disease," says Kevin Fenton, MD, PhD, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, in a news release.
Current hepatitis C testing guidelines call for only those with certain risk factors to be tested for the virus.
The announcement of the proposed change coincides with the first-ever National Hepatitis Testing Day on May 19. After a public comment period, the new guidelines are expected to be finalized later this year.
The hepatitis C virus is spread through exposure to infected blood. The most common means of infection is through sharing of needles or other equipment used to inject drugs.
Researchers say most baby boomers were likely infected with hepatitis C when they were in their teens or 20s.
Some may have been infected when they experimented with injection drugs, even just once. Others may have been exposed to the virus through blood transfusions before modern blood-screening procedures came into effect in 1992.
Once infected, the hepatitis C virus causes progressive damage to the liver and can go undetected for many years without symptoms. Some people may have symptoms -- like fever, fatigue, dark urine, and abdominal pain -- six to seven weeks after getting infected.
Hepatitis C can lead to serious liver disease and liver cancer, which is the fastest-growing cause of cancer-related deaths. It is also the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
The CDC says one-time testing of all baby boomers for the hepatitis C virus could identify more than 800,000 people infected with the virus, allow for early treatment to prevent liver disease, and save more than 120,000 lives.
Researchers say therapies can cure up to 75% of hepatitis C infections.
"With increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C," says CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, in the release.
SOURCE:News release, CDC.
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