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Momentum Builds For Hepatitis C Testing Of Baby Boomers

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an influential and often controversial panel of doctors, is moving toward a recommendation for testing that could apply to all baby boomers.

The group issued draft advice to doctors saying they should consider giving a hepatitis C test to people born between 1945 and 1965, regardless of their risk factors for having the disease.

Until now, the group has recommended the test only for people at high risk for the infection, such as those with a history of intravenous drug users or those who received a blood transfusion prior to 1992.

The panel says it may no longer be be a good idea for doctors to rely on patients to disclose their risk factors. Someone who received a blood transfusion before 1992 (when routine screening of blood donations for hepatitis C started) may not remember it more than 20 years later. Also, patients who used intravenous drugs — even once — in their youth may be reluctant to tell their doctors about it as an adult.

Three-fourths of all people in the U.S. with hepatitis C, a viral infection, are baby boomers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most have no idea they're infected with the virus that causes the disease because. People can be free of symptoms for decades before serious liver damage becomes apparent.

If the task force ends up adopting this draft recommendation, it will follow one from the CDC, which issued an even stronger hepatitis C recommendation earlier this year. The CDC advised that all baby boomers get tested.

Hepatitis C infections are a leading cause of liver transplants. But infections can be treated with a combination of drugs. That treatment can last almost a year and cost as much as $100,000, though.

People without insurance who test positive for hepatitis C can get labeled with a preexisting condition that makes it difficult for them to get insurance (at least until a ban on insurers rejecting people over pre-existing conditions takes effect in 2014).

"Considerations regarding insurance coverage are real, affecting individuals and their loved ones ... " Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC's viral hepatitis division, told MSNBC.com in June. "These issues are ones we must continue to consider as part of any implementation of these recommendations."

Ultimately though, research has shown that treating hepatitis C infections is more cost-effective than treating the disease's serious complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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