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Boomers most at risk for hepatitis C, study says

WASHINGTON - Deaths from liver-destroying hepatitis C are on the rise, and new data show baby boomers, especially, should take heed - they are most at risk.

Federal health officials are considering whether anyone born between 1945 and 1965 should get a one-time blood test to check if their livers harbor this ticking time bomb. The reason: Two-thirds of people with hepatitis C are in this age group, most unaware that a virus that takes a few decades to do its damage has festered since their younger days.

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The issue has taken on new urgency since two drugs hit the market last summer that promise to cure many more people than was previously possible. And research published yesterday says testing millions of the middle-aged to find those who need the pricey treatment would be worth the cost, saving thousands of lives.

“One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection,’’ said Dr. John Ward, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Most people will be surprised, because it’s a silent epidemic.’’

Sharing a needle while injecting illegal drugs is the biggest risk factor for becoming infected with this blood-borne virus. But before 1992, when widespread testing of the blood supply began, hepatitis C was spread through blood transfusions. A one-time experiment with drugs in high school or college could have been enough.

About 3.2 million Americans may have chronic hepatitis C, but at least half may not know it. The virus, which affects 170 million people worldwide, can gradually scar the liver and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. It is a leading cause of liver transplants.

A CDC study analyzed a decade of death records and found an increase in death rates from hepatitis C. In 2007, there were 15,000 deaths related to hepatitis C, higher than previous estimates - and surpassing the nearly 13,000 deaths caused by the better-known AIDS virus.

Three-fourths of the hepatitis deaths occurred in people 45 to 64 years old, researchers reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Mortality will continue to grow for the next 10 to 15 years at least unless we do something different’’ to find and treat the infected, Ward said.

CDC guidelines recommend testing people known to be at high risk, and until last summer there was not much enthusiasm even for that step. The yearlong, two-drug treatment promised to cure only 40 percent of people; treatment was so grueling that many patients refused to try it. Treatment could cost up to $30,000.

Two new drugs - telaprevir from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and Merck & Co.’s boceprevir - are starting to change that pessimism.

Research suggests adding one of them to standard therapy can boost cure rates to as high as 75 percent. Despite side effects, that can allow some people to finish treatment in just six months. Drugs that promise to work even better are being tested.

Those advances are fueling CDC deliberations of whether to change guidelines to recommend that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 get a screening.

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