ATLANTA — All baby boomers should get a onetime blood test to learn if they have the liver-destroying hepatitis C virus, U.S. health officials said Thursday.
It can take decades for the blood-borne virus to cause liver damage and for symptoms to emerge, so many people don't know they're harboring it. Baby boomers account for about two-thirds of the estimated 3.2 million infected Americans.
More than 15,000 Americans die each year from hepatitis C-related illnesses, and the number has been growing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Unless we take action, we project deaths will increase substantially," CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a call with reporters.
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.
Some experts say tattoos, piercings, shared razor blades and toothbrushes, manicures and sniffed cocaine may have caused the virus to spread in some cases.
However it happened, health officials say baby boomers are five times more likely to be infected than other adults.
The virus can gradually scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer, and is the leading reason for liver transplants. It can damage other parts of the body as well.
Officials said they decided to issue the recommendations after the number of Americans dying from hepatitis C-related diseases nearly doubled from 1999 to 2007.
Another reason: Two drugs hit the market last year that promise to cure many more people than was previously possible.
The recommendation applies to people born from 1945 to 1965 who have not been tested. They should get a blood test at their next doctor visit, Frieden said.