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Hepatitis C now kills more U.S. adults than HIV, and baby boomers are among the most-affected demographic, a new study shows.
Hepatitis C killed more than 15,000 Americans in 2007 -- surpassing HIV-related deaths, which totaled about 12,700 that year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Three-fourths of hepatitis deaths, and two-thirds of chronic hepatitis infections, occurred among baby boomers -- those born between 1945 and 1965, the CDC study found.
"One of every 33 baby boomers are living with hepatitis C infection," the CDC's top hepatitis expert told CBS News. "Most people will be surprised, because it's a silent epidemic."
Hepatitis C is a liver infection caused by a virus that's passed through infected blood. Most infections become chronic, and can lead to cirrhosis or scarring of the liver, as well as liver cancer, Reuters reports.
But initial hepatitis C infections usually don't result in symptoms. Instead, the virus silently damages the liver over a period of years. About 3.2 million Americans have chronic hepatitis infection, but half of them don't know it, the CDC reports.
The high rate of hepatitis infections among baby boomers may be linked to casual drug use as far back as the 1960s, CDC researchers suggest. Sharing tainted needles was, and remains, one of the most common routes of infection.
Hepatitis infections can also be linked to blood transfusions, as blood donors were not routinely tested for hepatitis until 1992.
A renewed push for hepatitis C screenings -- perhaps among all baby boomers -- could help save lives, the CDC study suggests. The findings appear in the Annals of Internal Medicine.