Hepatitis C targets baby boomers

Two-thirds of people with the liver disease were born between 1945 and 1965, a study shows.

Posted: February 21, 2012

WASHINGTON - Deaths from liver-destroying hepatitis C are on the rise, and new data show that baby boomers are most at risk.

Federal health officials are considering whether anyone born between 1945 and 1965 should get a one-time blood test to check if their livers harbor this ticking time bomb. Two-thirds of people with hepatitis C are in this age group, most unaware they have a festering virus that takes a few decades to do its damage.

The issue has taken new urgency since two drugs hit the market last summer that promise to cure many more people than ever was possible. And research published Monday says testing millions of the middle-aged to find those who need the pricey treatment would be worth the cost, saving thousands of lives.

"One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection," says John Ward, hepatitis chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Most people will be surprised, because it's a silent epidemic."

Don't think you need to worry?

Yes, sharing a needle while injecting illegal drugs is the biggest risk factor. But before 1992, when widespread testing of the blood supply began, hepatitis C commonly was spread through blood transfusions. Plus, a one-time experiment with drugs way back in high school or college could have been enough.

About 3.2 million Americans are estimated to have chronic hepatitis C, but at least half of them may not know it. The virus, which affects 170 million people worldwide, can gradually scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. It is a leading cause of liver transplants.

A CDC study published Monday found an increase in death rates from hepatitis C. The 15,000 deaths in 2007 surpassed the nearly 13,000 deaths caused by the better-known AIDS virus.

Three-fourths of the hepatitis deaths occurred in people 45 to 64, researchers reported in Annals of Internal Medicine.

CDC's current guidelines recommend testing people known to be at high risk. Until last summer there wasn't much enthusiasm for that step. The yearlong treatment with two drugs promised to cure only 40 percent of people and could cost up to $30,000. Treatment was so grueling that many patients refused to try it.

Two new drugs - Vertex Pharmaceuticals' telaprevir and Merck & Co.'s boceprevir - are starting to change that pessimism. Research suggests adding one of them to standard therapy can boost cure rates as high as 75 percent. While still full of side effects, they can allow some people to finish treatment in just six months. They add to the price, however, another $1,000 to $4,000 a week.

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