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All baby boomers need hepatitis C testing, federal health leaders recommend

By Sandy Kleffman, Contra Costa Times –

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — All baby boomers should be tested for hepatitis C to help avoid serious liver disease and death, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Thursday.

The CDC estimates that one out of 30 people born from 1945 through 1965 — those now ages 47 to 67 — are infected with the deadly virus, but most are unaware of it.

Many contracted the virus decades ago when they were in their teens or twenties through blood transfusions, medical procedures or getting tattoos before widespread blood screening and other safeguards were in place, said CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

Others may have gotten it through intravenous drug use, even if they only did it once.

Baby boomers are five times more likely than other American adults to be infected with the disease.

“The longer a hepatitis C infection goes undetected, the more damage it causes,” said Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC’s division of viral hepatitis.

Hepatitis C is often called “a silent epidemic” because people may have no noticeable symptoms for decades.

Yet it can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer and other illnesses, health experts say. Deaths from hepatitis C-related illnesses are increasing, reaching more than 15,000 annually.

For these reasons, the CDC announced Thursday that it is recommending that all baby boomers receive a onetime blood test for the virus. Health leaders anticipate that 800,000 new cases will be revealed and more than 120,000 lives will be saved.

Detecting the virus is important because newly available therapies can cure up to 75 percent of infections, the CDC said.

Those who know they are infected can also take steps to protect themselves by avoiding alcohol, which can accelerate liver disease.

Nationwide, nearly 3.2 million Americans are infected with the virus.

In the past, the CDC recommended screening only those who were deemed at high-risk, including people who have injected illegal drugs, received blood transfusions or organ transplants before 1992, and those living with HIV.

But the CDC decided to expand its recommendations because many baby boomers may no longer recall the events that placed them at risk.

“The test is widely available,” Ward said, adding that many insurers cover it. He urged baby boomers to talk to their doctor about it during their next checkup.

The hepatitis C virus attacks the liver and is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer in the United States. It is transmitted through contaminated blood.

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