Hepatitis C killed more Americans than HIV in 2007;a silent epidemic that medical experts say needs attention, according to research released Tuesday.
Between 1999 and 2007, researchers found that hepatitis C deaths grew steadily in the population of 22 million deceased Americans.
The disease that damages livers and causes jaundice killed over 15,000 people in 2007 and surpassed HIV-related deaths which accounted for nearly 13,000 deaths. Seventy three percent of people who died from hepatitis C were baby boomers, researchers said, and many don't know they are living with the infection.
One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection, Dr. John Ward, study author and hepatitis chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR. Most people will be surprised, because it's a silent epidemic.
The number of people affected by the disease could spiral out of control unless something is done to raise awareness and encourage testing, the authors wrote.
Without changes, deaths from [hepatitis C] are forecasted to increase to 35,000 annually by 2030.
Many of the 3.2 million people in the United States infected with hepatitis do not know it. Symptoms are either not present or very mild, which could leave the disease undiagnosed for decades, the authors wrote.
Knowing your status is one of the biggest weapons against hepatitis C, according to the CDC. The condition is treatable and people who are at-risk need to get tested.
Current or former injection drug users, including those who injected only once many years ago are at the highest risk, according to the CDC. People who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to July 1992 and people who received transfusions to help with blood clotting before 1987 should be tested as well.
Untreated hepatitis C is the primary cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis, which causes scarring of the liver. Liver transplants are common in people with the disease.
[Hepatitis C] is a leading and preventable cause of premature death in the United States, Dr. Scott Holmberg, study authors and chief of epidemiology and surveillance in CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis, told HealthDay.
Early detection and intervention can be cost-effective and save lives, he said.
CDC officials are currently debating whether to expand the testing guidelines to recommend that anyone born between 1945 and 1965 get a one-time screening. The screening could save 82,000 lives, the organization said in a separate study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Tuesday.
Hepatitis C is treated with antivirals given over the course of a year and treatment is effective in approximately 40 percent of cases, according to the CDC. However, new drugs have the ability to boost that rate to 75 percent and take only six months to work.
The study highlighted the need for more awareness of the disease. The American Liver Foundation has been trying to raise awareness of hepatitis C through their Tune in to Hep C campaign which began in June.
The organization partnered with musicians affected by the disease to spread the message that people need to get tested. Singer Jon Secada lost his father to the disease in November.
My father chose not to tell anyone about his disease for a long time, and he chose not to take action against it for reasons I may never understand, Secada told Reuters. By the time he was able to explore any aggressive medications it was too late.
He said his father wanted him to spread the word about the importance of getting tested.
Before he passed away, he told me that he wanted me to share his story to help other people like him who have chronic hepatitis C but aren't taking action, Secada told Reuters.
Take it from me, you need to talk to your doctor and talk to your family.