June 21, 2012
Baby boomers are up to five times as likely to be infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) as other age groups, resulting in what CDC calls "an age wave of persons progressing through time who are at increasing risk for severe liver disease."
An estimated 3 million to 5 million Americans have HCV, which can remain symptomless for decades. Last month, CDC proposed recommending that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for the virus. Though some people infected will never get sick, without treatment more than 60 percent will develop chronic liver disease. Up to 5 percent will die of cirrhosis or liver cancer. CDC projects that HCV will cause 1 million deaths in the coming 40 to 50 years.
"Patients are coming from everywhere," said Jonathan Fenkel, director of the new Hepatitis C Center at Philadelphia's Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.
HCV spreads through contact with infected blood. Before 1992, when widespread HCV screening to protect the blood supply was introduced, some people were infected through transfusions. Dialysis and high-risk sex also are risk factors, but the main source of transmission is contaminated needles.
In May 2011, two new HCV treatment advances were approved. Either of the protease inhibitors boceprevir (Victrelis) or telaprevir (Incivek), when taken with standard HCV drugs, nearly doubles the rate of sustained virologic response. But patients must still endure the side effects caused by the older drug interferon. Dozens of HCV drugs are in the pipeline, with the goal being a daily oral regimen that does not include interferon. However, the first approvals of new drugs are likely three to five years off.