If you were born between 1946 and 1964 -- the huge population group known as baby boomers -- you should get screened for hepatitis C.
The advice comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), who warns this generation, which widely experimented with sex and drugs, is especially vulnerable to this liver-destroying disease.
According to the health agency, one in 30 baby boomers has been infected with hepatitis C, and most don't know it. Hepatitis C causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer -- the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths -- and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
The CDC included the advice in its regular Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Draft recommendations were issued in May, followed by a public comment period.
Getting checked for hepatitis C is simple
"A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every baby boomer's medical checklist," said CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. "The new recommendations can protect the health of an entire generation of Americans and save thousands of lives."
Previously the CDC only called for testing on individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection. Risk-based screening will continue to be important, but is not sufficient alone, the agency said.
According to estimates, more than two million U.S. baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C, accounting for more than 75 percent of all American adults living with the virus. Studies show that many boomers were infected with the virus decades ago but don't know it and do not perceive themselves to be at risk, and therefore have never been screened.
More than 15,000 Americans -- most of them baby boomers -- die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, and deaths have been increasing steadily for over a decade. The CDC is worried the death toll will growing quickly in coming years.
If every baby boomer got tested, the CDC estimates it could identify more than 800,000 additional people with hepatitis C. That would likely save many lives. With newly available therapies, up to 75 percent of infections can be cured. The CDC says it would prevent the costly consequences of liver cancer and other chronic liver diseases and save more than 120,000 lives.
The problem with hepatitis C is a lot of people can have the virus and not realize it. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, most people who were recently infected with hepatitis C do not have symptoms. About one in 10 have yellowing of the skin that gets better.
Of people who get infected with hepatitis C, most develop a long-term infection. Usually there are no symptoms. If the infection has been present for many years, the liver may be permanently scarred. In many cases, there may be no symptoms of the disease until cirrhosis has developed.