(HealthDay News) -- Every American born between 1945 and 1965 should be tested for the liver-destroying virus hepatitis C, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Thursday.
One in 30 Baby Boomers is infected with the virus and most don't know it. Hepatitis C is a leading cause of liver cancer and other liver diseases, and is the leading cause of liver transplants, the CDC said.
"And deaths from hepatitis C have nearly doubled over the past decade," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said during an afternoon news conference. "Unless we take action now, deaths will increase substantially in the coming years."
Baby boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C than other adult Americans, Frieden said.
So, the CDC is now recommending one-time testing for hepatitis C for everyone in the country born between 1945 and 1965, he said. All those who test positive for the virus should receive a brief alcohol screening and intervention and be referred to appropriate care and treatment services. Alcohol use has been shown to accelerate the progression of liver disease, the agency added.
Until now, the recommendation had been for testing only those at risk. "But that approach missed far too many infections," Frieden explained.
These new recommendations take into account that more than 2 million Baby Boomers are infected with hepatitis C, accounting for more than 75 percent of all American adults living with the disease.
Many Baby Boomers were infected years ago and don't consider themselves at risk, so they've never been screened, Frieden noted.
Hepatitis C is a "silent killer," living in the liver for years while slowly destroying it, Dr. John Ward, director of the division of viral hepatitis at the CDC, said during the news conference.
Hepatitis C is spread through organ transplants, injected drug use and once even through blood transfusions and sexual contact, he said.
"Testing of Baby Boomers is essential to prevent unnecessary suffering and death from this devastating disease, and to reduce the burden of hepatitis C on our nation's health-care system," Ward said.
Each year, more than 15,000 Americans, most of them Baby Boomers, die from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. Deaths from the virus have been increasing for over a decade and are expected to increase in the coming years.
Testing Baby Boomers could identify more than 800,000 people with hepatitis C, Frieden said.
Identifying these people and linking them up with treatment could cure up to 75 percent of them. "Getting more people with hepatitis C into treatment could avoid 50,000 cases of liver cancer, nearly 200,000 cases of cirrhosis and more than 102,000 deaths," Ward said.
Dr. Marc Siegel, an associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City, said he supports the new recommendation.
"Hepatitis C is a real killer. It leads to a lot of cirrhosis and liver failure and need for liver transplants. It's a subclinical infection and it's often missed until it's too late," he said.
The final recommendations were published in the Aug. 17 issue the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. They were also published online Aug. 17 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.