Two new drugs nearing federal approval could nearly double the chance of curing those with the virus, which destroys the liver. In addition, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are studying whether all adults routinely should be screened for the disease, which kills 12,000 to 15,000 Americans each year.
The CDC is particularly eager for boomers to become more aware of the virus: Of the estimated 3.2 million Americans infected with hepatitis C, two-thirds are boomers in their 50s and 60s.
An Institute of Medicine report last year also found that deaths related to hepatitis C are particularly high among middle-age men.
Currently there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, and the standard two-drug treatment, which is long and difficult, cures only about 40 percent of patients. Recent studies, however, have shown that adding a third new drug can not only cut treatment time in half, but also boost the cure rate to as high as 75 percent.
The new drugs — Vertex Pharmaceuticals' telaprevir and Merck & Co.'s boceprevir — both have been granted a fast-track review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some expect approval to come by this summer.
"We're at the dawn of a new era in hepatitis C treatment," says John W. Ward, M.D., director of the CDC's division of viral hepatitis.
Ward calls hepatitis C "a silent epidemic" because it affects so many adults who don't realize they have the simmering virus.
For infected boomers, "it takes two to three decades for this virus to start causing harm to the liver, so this population is at high risk of getting sick," he says. Untreated hepatitis C can cause cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer and is the leading cause of liver transplants.
Most at risk for hepatitis C are those who had a blood transfusion before 1992 or who used intravenous drugs. The virus also can be spread through contact with blood from an infected person or poorly sterilized medical equipment.
For boomers who experimented with drugs in the '60s and '70s, discussing their drug past with their doctor may be embarrassing but is necessary. Catching the disease early is crucial to successful treatment.
The Institute of Medicine has called for a public awareness campaign for hepatitis C similar to that for HIV, to encourage people to get screened and monitored for infection.
Screening would involve a simple blood test. Those who test positive for exposure to the virus would get another test to see whether they have an active infection. A physician would then determine whether treatment or just regular monitoring was needed.
"It's more important to know early and have options versus getting diagnosed late and having few options," says Ward.
Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.