All baby boomers should be tested for the hepatitis C virus, U.S. health officials said on Thursday, citing studies suggesting more than 2 million Americans born between 1945 and 1965 may be infected with the liver-destroying virus.
Hepatitis C, which is transmitted through the blood, kills more than 15,000 Americans each year, mostly from illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Everyone age 47 to 67 who hasn't already been tested for hepatitis C should be tested once," Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC's director, said on a telephone press briefing. "The sooner you know the more you can protect your liver and your life."
The new guidelines are based on studies showing that many baby boomers were infected decades ago, before routine screening of donated blood and organs, or awareness of the risk from sharing intravenous needles.
The agency had previously recommended testing only for people with certain known risk factors for the infection. It estimates that around 3.2 million Americans are chronically infected with hepatitis C.
"Hepatitis C is particularly dangerous because it is a silent killer. It can live for decades in a person's body, slowly destroying the liver, while causing few symptoms," said Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC's division of viral hepatitis.
The new guidelines are expected to identify more than 800,000 infections, prevent 100,000 cases of cirrhosis, prevent more than 50,000 cases of liver cancer, and save more than 120,000 lives. Hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
The relatively inexpensive blood test is "a small investment now for a big benefit later," Ward said.
The CDC believes routine blood tests will address the largely preventable consequences of the disease, especially in light of newly available therapies that can cure around 75 percent of infections.
The field has attracted broad interest with two new hepatitis C drugs, Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc and Merck & Co's Victrelis, reaching the U.S. market in the past year.
Companies including Gilead Sciences Inc aim to improve on those medicines with pill-only regimens. One such program at Bristol-Myers Squibb suffered a setback earlier this month when a key trial was stopped after a patient developed heart failure.
U.S. regulators on Thursday put a hold on testing of an experimental hepatitis C drug being developed by Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc, citing safety concerns.
(Editing by Leslie Adler)