FRIDAY, May 18, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants all Americans born between 1945 and 1965 -- the baby boom generation -- tested for hepatitis C.
Most cases of the potentially deadly disease occur in this age group, and most were infected in their teens and 20s and don't know they are infected, the agency said.
"CDC views this as an unrecognized health crisis and we needed to take a bold action because current strategies weren't working," said Dr. John Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
"The recommendation is for a one-time hepatitis C virus test for all persons born between 1945 and 1965," Ward said.
Deaths from the virus topped 15,000 in 2007, according to the CDC.
"The great majority of people -- 75 percent -- of the 3.2 million Americans living with hepatitis C are in the so-called baby boom generation," Ward noted.
Baby boomers have a rate of infection about five times higher than others because they were young adults before the cause of hepatitis C was discovered in 1989, he explained.
Before that, the blood supply wasn't screened for the virus, which enabled it to spread through transfusions.
Drug use also is a risk. The virus passes from person to person through shared needles and snorting cocaine, Ward said.
Hepatitis C can be treated with antiviral medications, and as many as 75 percent of those infected can be cured, he pointed out.
If hepatitis C is not detected and not treated, it can lead to cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer.
"Liver cancer is the fastest rising cause of cancer deaths in the United States, and hepatitis C is the major cause of liver cancer," Ward said.
The number of new hepatitis C infections has decreased from several hundred thousand a year to about 17,000 currently. Besides screening the blood supply, this decline is attributed to improved infection control in hospitals and public education about the disease, he said.
The current recommendation is to test only people with known risk factors, which include HIV, drug use and people with signs of liver disease. By targeting baby boomers, it's thought that an additional 800,000 people living with hepatitis C could be identified and more than 120,000 hepatitis C-related deaths prevented, the CDC said.
The proposal will be available for public comment and then finalized later in the year.
Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, said he supports the proposal.
"Hepatitis C is a real killer. It leads to a lot of cirrhosis and liver failure and need for liver transplants. It's a subclinical infection and it's often missed until it's too late," he said.
For more information on hepatitis C, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.