Anyone born from 1945 to 1965 should get a one-time blood test to see if they have the liver-destroying virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.
Baby boomers account for more than 2 million of the 3.2 million Americans infected with the blood-borne virus. It can take decades to cause liver damage, and many people don't know they're infected.
CDC officials believe the new measure could lead 800,000 more baby boomers to get treatment and could save more than 120,000 lives.
"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 Dr. John W. Ward, the CDC's hepatitis chief.
Several developments drove the CDC's push for wider testing, he said.
Recent data has shown that from 1999 to 2007, the number of Americans dying from hepatitis C-related diseases nearly doubled. Also, two drugs hit the market last year that promise to cure many more people than was previously possible.
The virus can gradually scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer, and is the leading cause of liver transplant. It can trigger damage in other parts of the body as well. All told, more than 15,000 Americans die each year from illnesses related to hepatitis C, the CDC said.
The hepatitis C virus is most commonly spread today through sharing needles to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of blood donations began in 1992, it was also spread through blood transfusions.
Health officials believe hundreds of thousands of new hepatitis C infections were occurring each year in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them in the younger adults of the era -- the baby boomers. The hepatitis C virus was first identified in 1989.
Today, about 17,000 infections occur annually, according to CDC estimates.
About 3 percent of baby boomers test positive for the virus, the CDC estimates.
Of those, some manage to clear the infection from their bodies without treatment, but still have lingering antibodies that give a positive initial test result. That's why confirmatory tests are needed.
Still, only a quarter of infected people are that lucky. Most have active and dangerous infections, Ward said.
It's possible some people were infected in ways other than injection drug use or long-ago blood transfusions. Some experts say tattoos, piercings, shared razor blades and toothbrushes, manicures and sniffed cocaine may have caused the virus to spread in some cases.
A recent Harris Interactive survey of 1,000 baby boomers found a lack of knowledge about hepatitis C. Fewer than 20 percent knew they belonged to the generation most likely to be infected, and only a similar percent were aware it can be cured in many patients.
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