Researchers examined the causes of death for more than 21.8 million U.S. residents between 1999 and 2007, and found that in 2007, more than 15,000 deaths were linked to Hepatitis C, exceeding the nearly 13,000 deaths that were linked to HIV. The researchers found that almost 75% of Hepatitis deaths involved middle-aged or older patients, born between 1945 and 1964.
“One of every 33 baby boomers are living with Hepatitis C infection,” says Dr. John Ward, hepatitis chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Most people will be surprised, because it’s a silent epidemic.” 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 nearly 170 million people worldwide gradually scars the liver, leading to cirrhosis or liver cancer. It is a leading cause of liver transplants.
CDC’s current guidelines recommend testing people known to be at high risk, but the testing has been unpopular due to the year-long, two-drug treatment promised to cure only 40 percent of people. Reportedly, the treatment was so grueling that many patients refused to try the treatment could cost up to $30,000. With the introduction of two new drugs — Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ telaprevir and Merck & Co.’s boceprevir, treatment looks more promising. Research suggests adding one of them to standard therapy can boost cure rates as high as 75%. Though not without side effects, some people can complete the entire treatment in just six months. It can cost another $1,000 to $4,000 a week. These testing promises and advances are fueling CDC deliberations of whether to change testing guidelines and recommend that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 get a one-time screening.
It’s not clear how quickly the CDC will settle the boomer-screening question. But doctors at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center have started raising the issue with baby boomers. A Montefiore internist, Dr. Gary Rogg, says a number of patients have sought Hepatitis C testing after seeing hepatitis-awareness ads from the drugs’ manufacturers.