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CDC urges hepatitis C test for all baby boomers born between 1945 and 1965

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wikimedia

(CBS/AP) All adults born between 1945 and 1965 should get a blood test to see if they have hepatitis C, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in draft recommendations issued Friday.

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Baby boomers account for 2 million of the 3.2 million Americans infected with the blood-borne liver-destroying virus. CDC officials believe the new measure could lead 800,000 more boomers to get treatment and could save more than 120,000 lives.

"The CDC views hepatitis C as an unrecognized health crisis for the country, and we believe the time is now for a bold response," said Dr. John W. Ward, the CDC's hepatitis chief.

Several developments drove the CDC's push for wider testing, he said. Recent data has shown that from 1999 and 2007, there was a 50 percent increase in the number of Americans dying from hepatitis C-related diseases. Also, two drugs hit the market last year that promise to cure many more people than was previously possible.

The hepatitis C virus is most commonly spread today through sharing needles to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of blood donations began in 1992, it was also spread through blood transfusions.

Health officials believe hundreds of thousands of new hepatitis C infections were occurring each year in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them in the younger adults of the era - the baby boomers. The hepatitis C virus was first identified in 1989.

Today, about 17,000 infections occur annually, according to CDC estimates. The virus can gradually scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. It is the leading cause of liver transplants.

About 3 percent of baby boomers test positive for the virus, the CDC estimates.

The agency's current guidelines recommend testing people known to be at high risk, including current and past injection drug users.

The new testing recommendation is expected to become final later this year.

Hepatitis C can either be "acute," which is short-term and occurs within 6 months of exposure to the virus, or "chronic," which can cause long-term health problems or even death. Approximately 75 percent to 85 percent of people who become infected with Hepatitis C virus develop chronic infection, and most people infected do not show any symptoms. There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C - the best way to prevent it is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, especially injection drug use.

The CDC has more on hepatitis C.