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The federal government now advises doctors to make testing for Hepatitis C a routine part of medical checkups. Hepatitis C attacks the liver and claims far more lives each year than HIV-AIDS. Even so, millions of Americans don't realize they're infected with Hepatitis C and can live with the disease for decades before symptoms emerge.
Fred Mogul, of member station WNYC, reports that New York could become the first state to require doctors to offer baby boomers the test.
FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: Dr. Alex Federman is an internist at a primary care clinic at Mt. Sinai Hospital.
ALEX FEDERMAN: So tell me what you know about Hepatitis C.
MOGUL: He's talking to a new patient, Patricia Rowe.
PATRICIA ROWE: Well, I know that you could have it and not know that you do have it.
MOGUL: Rowe, a nurse, says she thinks Hep C is mostly transmitted through the blood by sharing syringes. Dr. Federman explains she's partly right.
FEDERMAN: But it turns out there's a large chunk of people who are infected and we don't necessarily know why.
MOGUL: Hepatitis C was only isolated in 1989, well after the A and B variations of the virus were identified. It's transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, which is why people could be vulnerable from shared needles or blood transfusions. There wasn't a test to screen the blood supply until the early 1990s. And today, baby boomers are five times more likely than the general population to have been exposed to contaminated blood.
And so, Dr. Federman tells Rowe...
FEDERMAN: We're recommending now everybody born between 1945 and 1965 get screened once in their life for Hepatitis C.
MOGUL: That's new. For years, doctors mainly offered tests to at-risk populations like IV drug users. Some experts believed widely testing other groups would cost a lot and not pick up many infections. And as of now, treatment still has severe side effects.
But Dr. Brian Edlin, from Weill Cornell Medical College, says screening boomers could detect around 800,000 people with Hep C.
BRIAN EDLIN: And they're large numbers of people who are rich and poor, who are black and white. If we test people in that group, we're going to find a lot.
MOGUL: Putting the guideline out there is one thing, but getting doctors to offer the test to patients is another.
JAY VARMA: There has been a bit of guideline and recommendation overload.
MOGUL: Dr. Jay Varma is the New York City Deputy Health Commissioner for Disease Control. He says getting the attention of providers is an ongoing challenge these days.
VARMA: Every major journal you look at will start to now recommend screening for this new disease, or this type of screening test for an old disease.
MOGUL: All this, when doctors have less and less time to talk to patients. New York State legislators recently passed a bill requiring doctors offer the Hep C test to all baby boomers. The bill's author, Hudson Valley Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, says he wanted to give some teeth to the federal guidelines.
ASSEMBLYMAN KENNETH ZEBROWSKI: When you codify something and it goes into that public health law, doctors will follow it.
MOGUL: But the state's largest physicians group opposes the bill. They say experts, not politicians, should be the ones who determine health regulations. Governor Cuomo has yet to decide whether to sign the bill.
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MOGUL: Back at Mt. Sinai, patient Patricia Rowe quickly decides to get the test. She goes to an office next door and an assistant gets ready to take her blood.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mix it.
MOGUL: Rowe says it's unlikely she has Hep C. But she is a 66-year-old nurse, and at some point in her long career, she could've been accidentally pricked by a needle. And she says there's no point in guessing what she might've been exposed to when she could know for sure.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.
MONTAGNE: And that story is part of an NPR collaboration with WNYC and Kaiser Health News.
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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.