Aug. 16, 2012 -- Effective immediately, all U.S. baby boomers should get a one-time blood test for the hepatitis C virus, the CDC says.
One in 30 baby boomers born between 1945 through 1965 has been infected with hepatitis C, and most have no clue. Hepatitis C can go undetected without symptoms, but slowly causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer. It is also the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
"Three-quarters of all hepatitis C infections and three-quarters of hepatitis C deaths occur in baby boomers," CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, said today during a conference call with reporters. "Baby boomers are five times more likely to have Hepatitis C than other adult Americans."
The new recommendations strengthen existing guidelines that state that all people at high risk for hepatitis C should be tested. "While we continue to recommend testing for high-risk individuals, baby boomers are now added to the list," Frieden says. This move could help identify 800,000 more Americans with hepatitis C.
New Therapies Can Cure Hepatitis C
"The sooner you know, the more you can protect your liver and your life," Frieden says.
If the test is positive, people can lower their risk of liver cancer and cirrhosis by:
- Avoiding certain medications that affect the liver
- Avoiding alcohol
- Getting vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B
New therapies can cure up to 75% of infections. Frieden says the expanded testing, along with appropriate care and treatment, could save more than 120,000 lives.
Frieden, a baby boomer himself, plans to get tested at his next well visit.
Are You at Risk for Hepatitis C?
Risk factors for this silent but potentially lethal infection include:
- History of blood transfusions or other blood products, or organ transplant before widespread adoption of screening measures
- Long-term dialysis treatment
- Exposure to hepatitis C such as through a health care setting
- Infection with HIV, the AIDS virus
- Children born to mothers with hepatitis C
- Tattooing or piercing with non-sterile instruments
- Injection drug use
"Some baby boomers may not remember or know of the events that place them at risk," says John Ward, MD. He directs the division of viral hepatitis at the National Center for HIV/ AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention in Atlanta.
"Hepatitis C can live for decades in the body, slowly destroying the liver and causing no symptoms," he says. "The earlier the treatment is provided, the more effective it can be at reducing risk for liver damage and liver cancer."
The final recommendations appear in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Their release dovetails with a new phase in the CDC's "No More Hepatitis" campaign.
Hepatitis C Experts Get Behind New Recommendations
Eugene R. Schiff, MD, directs the Schiff Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami School of Medicine, and is the vice president of the Chronic Liver Disease Foundation. He is 100% behind the new recommendation.
By the time this gets implemented, there will be more hepatitis C drugs available with fewer side effects than existing medications, Schiff says. "It will be test and treat like with HIV."
Former hepatitis C patient Martha Saly also lauds the new recommendation. "This is something we have been waiting for," says Saly, who is the director of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable in Rohnert Park, Calif.
"Getting diagnosed is really important because there are many things you can do to maintain your health even if you have hepatitis C," she says. "Stop drinking, stop smoking, lose weight, and you can really help your liver to not progress so quickly. ... Alcohol is like putting gas on the fire when you already have liver damage."