(Reuters) - All baby boomers should be tested at least once for the liver-destroying hepatitis C virus, according to proposed guidelines from U.S. health officials released on Friday.
The often undiagnosed virus is contracted through contact with blood from an infected person. While the risk of infection has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s, many older adults are still at risk, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released the draft guidelines.
According to the CDC, one in 30 baby boomers - the generation born from 1945 through 1965 - has been infected with hepatitis C, and most do not know it.
The virus causes serious liver diseases, including liver cancer - the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths - and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.
The CDC said in a statement it believes routine testing will address the largely preventable consequences of the disease, especially in light of newly available therapies that can cure up to 75 percent of infections.
The field has attracted broad interest with two new hepatitis C drugs -- Incivek from Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc and Merck & Co's Victrelis - reaching the U.S. market in the past year.
Companies including Gilead Sciences and Bristol-Myers Squibb aim to improve on those medicines with pills that do not need to be combined with injections of immune system boosters, which have side effects that can deter patients.
More than 15,000 Americans, most of them baby boomers, die each year from hepatitis C-related illness, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.
Current U.S. guidelines call for testing only individuals with certain known risk factors for hepatitis C infection.
The CDC said it will accept public comment on the draft recommendations from May 22 to June 8.
(Reporting By Deena Beasley; editing by John Wallace)