An unrecognized health crisis in the United States is getting major attention this week, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced strong recommendations on Thursday for all baby boomers in America to get tested for hepatitis C.
"One in 30 baby boomers—the generation born from 1945 through 1965—has been infected with hepatitis C, and most don't know it," CDC officials said in a press release issued Thursday after publishing their public health recommendation in the current issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The report, prepared by more than a dozen public health professionals, as well as universities, research institutions and federal agencies, summarizes and explains the new expanded recommendation that aims to reach the entire population of individuals between the ages of 47 and 67 and not just those identified in high-risk groups, as previously recommended.
"Current risk-based testing strategies have had limited success, as evidenced by the substantial number of HCV-infected persons who remain unaware of their infection," the report states.
According to Nettie Gerstle, Hamilton County's communicable disease control program manager, local residents should discuss getting tested with their primary care physician, but there is no general cause for alarm.
"Everyone at some point should know what their hepatitis C status is, but you don't have to rush out and get tested right now. Find out if you have ever been tested before, and, if not, request the test because right now it is not a part of the routine blood tests that are done during a physical exam," Gerstle said.
The prevalence of the virus among persons born during 1945–1965 is five times higher than among adults born in other years, according to the report.
Studies also show that many people within the targeted age group were most likely infected with the virus decades ago. Since they usually do not perceive themselves to be at risk in the first place, most of the infected age group do not get screened, and the contagious virus goes undetected.
In Hamilton County, Gerstle said there are three known cases of acute hepatitis C this year, with an average of two to four cases annually over the past five years. But, like most communities, there is no true picture of the actual number of cases.
According to the CDC, some Americans may have become infected through blood transfusions or other health care exposures before universal precautions and widespread blood screening began in 1992. The virus is transmitted through contaminated blood but is called the "silent epidemic" because there are often no noticeable symptoms for many years.
“Because hepatitis C has few noticeable symptoms, many of those who are infected have no idea that the virus has been slowly damaging their livers. Testing is the only way to identify the millions of Americans who have the virus and is the first step in stopping this epidemic in its tracks,” Bryce Smith, lead health scientist of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, Ph.D., said.
Gerstle said individuals can avoid exposure to the virus by not sharing personal household items like toothbrushes, razors, nail clippers, glucose monitors or any other item that would allow contact with someone else's blood.
Those with tattoos and body piercings should also be careful to choose licensed practitioners who follow universal health and safety precautions, Gerstle said.
A simple one-time blood test as part of a routine medical checkup is all that is necessary, officials said. If everyone heeds the recommendation, the CDC estimates it will be able to identify more than 800,000 new undiagnosed cases.
The hepatitis C virus attacks the liver and is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer. According to the CDC, liver cancer is the fastest-rising cause of all cancer-related deaths in the United States.
Although hepatitis C-related deaths are on the rise (more than 15,000 in 2007), new therapies are able to cure up to 75 percent of patients, officials said.
The CDC estimates that the new recommendation for baby boomers could help prevent more than 120,000 deaths.