The federal government Friday called for all baby boomers to be tested for hepatitis C, which kills more Americans each year than AIDS and is the leading reason for liver transplants.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the recommendation to find hundreds of thousands of people who have the infection, which greatly increases their chances of developing cirrhosis and liver cancer, but don't know it.
The hepatitis C virus is transmitted by blood, usually through intravenous drug use or transfusions, before a blood test for it became widely available in 1992.
Extremely small amounts of the virus are able to cause infection. Some experts believe that rolled-up dollar bills used to snort cocaine and passed person-to-person can carry enough infected blood to transmit the virus.
"Many baby boomers may not even remember the behaviors that put them at risk," said John Ward, head of the CDC's division of viral hepatitis.
Epidemiologists estimate that about 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, three-quarters of them baby boomers. The disease kills at least 15,000 people a year.
The CDC's strategy calls for a one-time voluntary blood test for everyone born from 1945 to 1965.
The test would be done by doctors, clinics and hospitals as part of routine medical care. Hepatitis C tests now target mostly people who report high-risk activities or show signs of abnormal liver function.
The strategy could identify 800,000 new cases in baby boomers and prevent 120,000 hepatitis-related deaths in that age group, Ward said.
Treatment of hepatitis C infection takes at least six months and consists of pills and a weekly injection. The cure rate used to be less than 30 percent; with a new three-drug strategy, it can be as high as 75 percent.
About 80 percent of people infected with hepatitis C remain so for their lifetimes. Most have no symptoms, although blood tests might reveal low-grade liver inflammation.
Up to 30 percent eventually develop cirrhosis, a scarring of the liver that is often fatal. Cirrhosis also greatly increases the risk of developing liver cancer, which few people survive more than six months.
Baby boomers are being targeted simply because they are the population group with by far the largest number of undetected cases. Finding and treating them will cost about $30,000 for every year of life saved -- a pricetag comparable to detecting and treating cervical cancer or high cholesterol, Ward said.
A government call for such broad testing is unusual but not unprecedented. Several years ago, the CDC recommended that essentially all Americans be tested for the AIDS virus.
Deaths from hepatitis C surpassed those from AIDS in 2007 and are rising, according to a study published this year.
Currently, many baby boomers learn of their infection almost by accident, like when they donate blood or get a physical exam for a life insurance policy, said Dr. Ryan Ford, an Emory University physician specializing in hepatitis care.