POSTED: Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 4:00am
UPDATED: Sunday, May 20, 2012 - 4:04am
NATIONAL NEWS (CNN) — It's a "silent epidemic," an "unrecognized health crisis," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it's affecting 2.1 million baby boomers in the United States.
The CDC announced Friday that it is considering recommending Hepatitis C testing for everyone born between 1945 and 1965. Currently the CDC recommends this testing only for those who are at-risk - people who participated in intravenous drug use or had a blood transfusion before 1992, when screening was implemented.
But such events probably happened decades ago for this population, who may not recall the exposures that place them at risk, says Dr. John Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC. And those that do remember may not be offering up such information to their primary care physicians.
"I'm not sure everybody is going to acknowledge to their doctors that they used drugs in their 20s," says Dr. Michael Ryan, co-chair of the American Gastroenterological Association's I.D. Hep C awareness campaign.
The timing of the CDC's announcement coincides with Hepatitis Awareness Month. Saturday, May 19, will mark the first national Hepatitis Testing Day. It's all part of the organization's national education campaign, "Know More Hepatitis."
Hepatitis literally means "inflammation of the liver," according to the CDC's website. It's caused by viral infections, the most common being Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C. Vaccines are available for Hepatitis A and B, but a Hepatitis C vaccine remains elusive, although research is underway.
Hepatitis is usually spread through blood. Transmission through sexual content can happen but the risk is low, Ward says.
In 2007, approximately 17,000 new Hepatitis C virus infections were diagnosed in the United States. The CDC estimates that 3.2 million Americans have chronic Hepatitis C and more than 75% don't know it because they aren't experiencing any symptoms. Baby boomers represent the majority of cases - more than 75%, and are five times more likely to be infected than other adults.
The American Gastroenterological Association conducted a survey of 1,000 baby boomers this year. Seventy-four percent had never been tested or were unsure if they had been tested. Eighty percent did not consider themselves at any risk for having the disease.
"The survey was actually a little bit frightening," Ryan said. Many thought hepatitis C affected the kidneys, or that the younger generation was more at-risk.
Approximately 20% of people with Hepatitis C will never develop symptoms and will conquer the disease without treatment. The rest can be treated with antiviral medications intended to clear the virus from the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason patients need liver transplants in the U.S., according to the CDC. Approximately 15,000 people die every year from related diseases.
CDC research suggests implementing this one-time test could help identify an additional 800,000 people living with the disease, and prevent 120,000 deaths.
"It's causing more deaths than AIDS, the costs are expected to quadruple and cure rates are at 80 to 90%," Ryan says. "[This recommendation] just kind of makes sense."
Before the CDC makes their final recommendation later, they are soliciting input from others experts and the public, which will be factored in to their decision.