The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a startling recommendation to baby boomers earlier this month: Get a blood test to see if you have hepatitis C, a disease that attacks the liver and if left untreated, can lead to cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer, all of which are disabling conditions that can leave a person too sick to work.

The agency decided to warn people born from the years 1945 to 1965 after noticing a nearly doubled rate of deaths from hepatitis C-related diseases from 1999 to 2007. More than 15,000 Americans die from these diseases each year, and that number continues to grow. But why specifically address baby boomers? Because according to health officials, people in that age group are five times more likely to be infected with hepatitis than other adults.

The reason for the higher rates of the disease in older adults isn’t entirely clear. Part of it could be the fact that widespread blood screening only began in 1992. Before that, people may have contracted hepatitis through blood transfusions. But they may also have become infected through dirty needles, sniffed cocaine, piercings, shared razor blades and toothbrushes. Even a manicure could have caused the spread of an infection.

Roughly 3 percent of baby boomers test positive, and though that may seem like a small number, people of this age account for two-thirds of the 3.2 million Americans who have the disease. Many are completely unaware they’re infected; it can take decades for hepatitis to cause enough liver damage for symptoms to appear, and by then it’s often too late. A doctor who leads a hepatitis advocacy organization says he’s seen too many patients diagnosed with the disease after they’d already developed liver cancer or a need for a transplant.

The test for hepatitis is a simple, one-time blood test available at your doctor’s office. An infection is treatable, but the sooner it’s caught, the less difficult the treatment. For those who are already experiencing disabling complications, help might be available through a Social Security disability insurance claim. With recognition of the hepatitis on a rapid increase, your chances of receiving benefits may be increasing, too.

Source: The Washington Post, “CDC recommends one-time test for hepatitis C for all baby boomers to check for infection,” Aug. 16, 2012

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