The US Center for Disease Control & Prevention has just announced that they are recommending that anyone falling in the age group of baby boomers to be tested for Hepatitis C due to a rise in unnecessary deaths, as the liver infection is a treatable disease.
Hepatitis C is often asymptomatic while it damages the liver, the CDC said in a statement. Therefore, because symptoms of hepatitis C are often silent for years, most don’t know they have it, the agency announced, therefore testing could prevent cirrhosis and liver cancer, both of which result from the infection, public health officials stated.
Baby boomers, those born from 1945 to 1965, were possibly infected in their teens and 20s, either through blood transfusions before HIV concerns prompted widespread screening in 1992, or with experimental injection drug use.
There are an estimated 78 million baby boomers in the U.S., according to the 2006 Census, and about 3.2 million Americans have hepatitis C and 75 percent of those infected adults are boomers.
One in 30 baby boomers have been infected with hepatitis C, according to the CDC. Just one test of all the members of that generation may identify 800,000 people with hepatitis C, preventing liver cancer and perhaps saving 120,000 lives.
“It’s a bold action that’s become necessary because there’s a large population that’s unaware of their illness, becoming ill, and dying in an era of effective treatment,” said John W. Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC, in a telephone interview.
“We believe this cost-effective public health approach can help protect the health of an entire generation of Americans,”Ward said.
Liver cancer is the fastest-growing cause of cancer death in the U.S. and hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer, Ward said. A blood test is the only way to identify hepatitis C infections, according to the CDC.
“Most cancer deaths are going down and this is one of the few that continues to escalate,” Ward said.
A study published in February in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that 15,000 people died from the virus from 1999 to 2007, according to the most recent available data.
“With increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C,” Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, CDC director, said in the release from the CDC.
Until recently, the standard treatment has been a combo of antiviral drug ribavirin along with immune-boosting protein interferon. But interferon treatments cause flu-like symptoms and fatigue as side effects. When protease inhibitors Victrelis from Merck and Incivek by Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson, were added to the treatment, they were found to cure more patients faster and with fewer side effects, Bloomberg reports. Additionally, there is a new class of drugs being developed that work in a new way and do not require interferon treatments. It is one of the brightest spots in biotech R&D.
The CDC guidelines, for now, call for hepatitis C testing only for individuals with certain known risk factors — such as a blood transfusion before 1992 or admitted recreational intravenous drug use. The proposed recommendation, which could be enacted later this year, would suggest that all of the more than 70 million baby boomers get tested.
About three of every four of baby boomers have never been tested for the virus, or can’t recall if they have, according to an online survey by the American Gastroenterological Association, based on more than 1,000 results. And some 80% didn’t consider themselves at risk, according to the survey.