April 9 (UPI) -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that virtually all American adults undergo screening for hepatitis C, citing data that shows the number of cases nationally has tripled since 2009.
In two separate reports released Thursday, the agency estimated that more than 50,000 Americans were diagnosed with the acute form of the virus, which affects the liver, in 2018. That same year, nearly 138,000 were diagnosed with chronic hepatitis C, the agency said.
Because of these figures, the CDC simultaneously released an updated version of its guidelines on screening for the disease. The agency now recommends that everyone 18 and older undergo hepatitis C screening at least once during their lifetime and that all pregnant women get tested for the virus "during each pregnancy."
"The hepatitis C epidemic has changed, and so should the nation's testing guidelines," Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said in a statement. "CDC wants all of us to get tested, and get cured."
The new screening guidelines apply to everyone except those living in areas where prevalence of hepatitis C is less than 0.1 percent.
Most acute cases of hepatitis C are not diagnosed -- and, as a result, not treated -- because they rarely produce symptoms. If the infection is allowed to progress from acute to chronic, however, people may experience severe fatigue, weight loss, jaundice and other symptoms.
Chronic hepatitis C can be cured, thanks to new antiviral agents, but those who don't get treated risk significant liver damage, including cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure, all of which can cause death.
The rise in cases of hepatitis C in the United States has been attributed to the ongoing opioid epidemic, as many of those who abuse or misuse the painkillers do so by injecting them.
Hepatitis C, in these cases, is transmitted by sharing contaminated needles. However, members of the "Baby Boomer" generation -- those born between 1945 and 1965 -- are also at risk for infection because they may have received blood contaminated with the virus prior to its discovery in the 1950s.
The CDC estimates that 36.3 percent of people diagnosed with the virus in 2018 were part of the Baby Boomer generation . Still, the highest percentage of new cases that year -- 36.5 percent -- were found in people born between 1981 and 1996.
"Concurrent with the nation's opioid crisis, in more recent years, new hepatitis C virus infections have occurred primarily among young adults, including persons of reproductive age," the CDC report noted.
For this reason, regardless of age, the agency advises that all persons with risk factors for hepatitis C -- including injection drug use -- should be tested for the virus, with periodic testing while risk factors persist.
In addition, anyone who wants hepatitis C testing should receive it because they may be reluctant to disclose stigmatizing risks, like drug use.