For the first time ever, U.S. health officials are urging all baby boomers, those born between 1945-1965, to get tested for hepatitis C, since one in 30 boomers may be infected with the liver-destroying virus and not know it –– until it's too late.
"Identifying these hidden infections early will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment, before they develop life-threatening liver disease," said Kevin Fenton, MD, PhD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, in a news release.
The word “Hepatitis” means inflammation of the liver. Hepatitis is most often caused by a virus. In the United States, the most common type of viral hepatitis is Hepatitis C.
Reuters says the often-undiagnosed virus is transmitted through contaminated blood.
While infection rates have dropped dramatically since the early 1990s - due in part to the introduction of blood and organ screening - many adults ages 47 to 67 are still at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which released the guidelines on Friday, the eve of the first-ever National Hepatitis Testing Day.
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.
Dr John Ward, director of CDC's division of viral hepatitis, likened the proposal for testing to existing age-related guidelines on screening for diseases including breast cancer, cervical cancer and high cholesterol, Reuters states.
Hepatitis C: Silent Killer
As WebMD states, 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.
"Yet most infected baby boomers do not know they have the virus because hepatitis C can damage the liver for many years with few noticeable symptoms," says the CDC.
Some people, however, can have mild to severe symptoms -- six to seven weeks after getting infected, including:
●Loss of appetite
●Clay-colored bowel movements
●Jaundice (yellow color in the skin or eyes)
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.
Baby boomer Vietnam era veterans are also a well-know risk group due to blood exposure in military field hospitals as well as drug use, says MedPage Today.
Don’t recall engaging in a risky behavior
Current CDC guidelines call for testing only individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection. But studies find that many baby boomers do not perceive themselves to be at risk and are not being tested.
As many as a quarter of the baby boomers infected with the hep C virus say they don’t recall engaging in a risky behavior, the Associated Press reported.
Then experts say it's possible some people were infected in ways other than injection drug use or long-ago blood transfusions.
Hepatitis C can also come from:
● being born to a mother with hepatitis C
● having sex with an infected person
● being tattooed or pierced with unsterilized tools that were used on an infected person
● getting an accidental needle stick with a needle that was used on an infected person
● using an infected person’s razor or toothbrush
● sharing drug needles with an infected person
● manicures with unsterilized tools that were used on an infected person
The AP says that those kinds of experiences might not raise flags in the minds of many patients or their physicians.
Effective treatments now available
"The CDC views hepatitis C as an unrecognized health crisis for the country, and we believe the time is now for a bold response," said Ward, according to the BBC.
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.
However, the recent introduction of two new hepatitis C drugs - Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc and Merck & Co's Victrelis, can cure up to 75% of hepatitis C infections.
Companies including Gilead Sciences Inc and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co even aim to improve on those medicines, Reuters reported.
"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.