More than 800,000 people with hepatitis C could be identified through a blanket test of the so-called baby boomers, according to the Center for Disease Control.

In draft guidelines, the CDC has recommended that, instead of only testing those considered to be at risk of having the disease, all baby boomers, i.e. all those born from 1945 through 1965, should be investigated to help identify hidden infections as early as possible.

According to the agency, one in 30 baby boomers are thought to be infected with hepatitis C (HCV), but most don’t realise it, and it has estimated that conducting a one-time blanket test of all those potentially affected could save as many as 120,000 lives.

More than two million US baby boomers are infected with hepatitis C, which accounts for more than 75% of all those in the US living with the virus, but often symptoms only occur after many years, during which time the liver has suffered significant damage.

Consequently, more than 15,000 Americans die each year from hepatitis C-related illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. And while deaths have been on a steady increase for over the last decade, the death rate is predicted to surge in the coming years as a growing number of cases 'mature'.

However “with increasingly effective treatments now available, we can prevent tens of thousands of deaths from hepatitis C,” said CDC Director Thomas Frieden.

Futher explaining the rationale behind the CDC's plans, Kevin Fenton director of its National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention, said that identifying hidden infections early "will allow more baby boomers to receive care and treatment, before they develop life-threatening liver disease.

Acceptable cost?

The cost of identifying and treating those carrying hepatits C will cost about $30,000 for every year of life saved, but this is comparable to detecting and treating cervical cancer or high cholesterol, John Ward, head of the CDC’s division of viral hepatitis, told the Washington Post.

The mainstay of treatment of HCV has been a combination of the antiviral drug ribavirin with the immune booster interferon for a number of years, but this form of therapy is lengthy and the side effects can have a significant impact on daily life.

However, new drugs on the market, such as Merck & Co's Victrelis (boceprevir) and Vertex Pharmaceuticals' Incivek (telaprevir), are making a mark for offering a faster and more effective means of treating the disease.