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Baby Boomers should get screened for Hepatitis C, says panel

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Task Force recommends Baby Boomers get screened for Hepatitis C

A government-backed panel is urging Baby Boomers born between 1945 and 1965 to get screened for hepatitis C. In a statement issued yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force also strongly advised doctors to "consider offering screening" to members of the Baby Boom generation.

According to the final recommendations, published June 24 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the most common chronic blood-borne pathogen in the United States and a leading cause of complications from chronic liver disease. Based on data from 1999 to 2008, approximately 75 of percent of patients with HCV infection in the U.S. were born between 1945 and 1965.

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted by exposure to the blood of someone with HCV infection. The most important risk factor for infection is injection drug use. Other ways of becoming infected include unprotected sex, exposure to donated blood products, or accidental exposure in health care settings. Prior to the early 1990s, the virus was sometimes transmitted during blood transfusions, but screening of donated blood has since made such transmission rare.

New HCV infection causes liver inflammation that may resolve without treatment, but infection can remain active throughout a person's lifetime and possibly lead to liver problems. Drug treatment to fight HCV reduces the advancement of severe liver disease and death.

Many people who have chronic HCV infection do not experience any symptoms until they have severe liver damage; thus, screening people who don’t have any symptoms of HCV (screening) may identify those who would benefit from treatment.

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The primary benefit of screening for hepatitis C is supported by studies that found patients who have the chronic infection, but take medication, have a very low level of the virus in their blood and are at lower risk of liver cirrhosis, cancer and death.

The Task Force also found that methods for assessing liver health and determining treatment are becoming safer, and that side effects of hepatitis C medication (e.g. headaches, flu-like symptoms, etc.) are "small."

Many people living with hepatitis C are not even aware that they have the condition and may go years without showing symptoms, according to the Task Force.

Stanford University's Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, who worked on one of the studies that influenced the updated recommendation, told Reuters Health that screening middle-aged adults seems to be effective and cost-effective, but there are other considerations as well.

"It's really important that when screening is rolled out, that we ensure that those people who screen positive have access to timely, high-quality treatment," he said.

SOURCE: Annals of Internal Medicine, “Screening for Hepatitis C Virus Infection in Adults: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement” (published online June 25, 2013); doi:10.7326/0003-4819-159-5-201309030-00672