NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Hepatitis C has surpassed HIV as a killer of U.S. adults, and screening all " " could be one way to stem the problem, according to two new government studies.
is a liver infection caused by a virus of the same name that is usually passed through contact with infected blood. An estimated 75 to 85 percent of infections become chronic, which can eventually cause serious diseases like cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and liver cancer.
In one of the new studies, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that by 2007, hepatitis C was killing more Americans than HIV -- the virus that causes AIDS.
In 2007, hepatitis C killed 15,100 Americans, accounting for 0.6 percent of all deaths that year. That compared with a little over 12,700 deaths related to HIV.
Those numbers are based on death certificates, and almost certainly underestimate the real scope, according to the CDC. Compared with HIV, hepatitis C infection is more likely to still be unrecognized at the time of a person's death.
"Hepatitis C mortality has, regrettably, been on the rise for a number of years," said , director of the CDC's viral hepatitis division and an author of the new study.
But, he told Reuters Health, "many of those deaths could be prevented."
Of the estimated 3.2 million Americans with infection, about half of them don't know it, according to the CDC.
That's because the initial infection causes no symptoms in most cases. Instead, the virus silently damages the liver over the years, and people may only discover they are infected when they develop irreversible liver cirrhosis.
Chronic hepatitis C is most common in "baby boomers" -- about two thirds of U.S. infections are in people born between 1945 and 1964, Ward's team notes in their report, which is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.