Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Study: Hepatitis C a New Worry for Boomers Many Older Americans Unknowingly Carrying Liver-Killing 'Stealth Virus'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Study: Hepatitis C a New Worry for Boomers Many Older Americans Unknowingly Carrying Liver-Killing 'Stealth Virus'

Article excerpt

LOS ANGELES -- The number of baby boomers dying from a "silent epidemic" of hepatitis C infections is increasing so rapidly that federal officials are planning a new nationwide push for widespread testing.

Three in four of the estimated 3.2 million people who have chronic hepatitis C -- and a similar proportion of those who die from the disease -- are baby boomers. Deaths from the virus nearly doubled between 1999 and 2007 to more than 15,000, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study.

Hepatitis C is the leading infectious cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer and is the most common reason for liver transplants in the United States, according to the CDC. In 2007, deaths from the disease surpassed those linked to HIV, and the numbers of fatalities are expected to continue increasing, researchers reported.

"We have sort of a perfect storm of an age wave of people who are moving through time who are progressively becoming sicker from an infection that was acquired several decades ago," said John Ward, director of the Division of Viral Hepatitis at the CDC. "We think we are at a very critical juncture."

Many boomers unknowingly contracted the virus in younger years from using drugs or having blood transfusions before screening was improved during the AIDS crisis. Unaware of the risk and without symptoms, most have never been tested for hepatitis C and don't know they have it. The disease -- primarily contracted through blood -- often remains hidden for decades while it slowly destroys liver cells. There is no vaccine.

"Hepatitis C is really a stealth virus," said Elizabeth Bancroft, medical epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. "It can live in you for many, many, many years."

Concerned about the disease among baby boomers, the CDC plans to issue a recommendation this year that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested. …

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