Tuesday, June 12, 2012

NEW CASTLE — It was in an airport in Chattanooga, Tenn., where former New Castle Sen. Burt Cohen first received the news that he was carrying hepatitis C.

It was the summer of 2007, and Cohen’s doctor called him to break the news he had been diagnosed with the liver disease.

Then in his mid-50s, Cohen recalled he was taken aback by the diagnosis, which indicated a potentially fatal virus had been at work inside his body for decades.

While an estimated 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, health officials say a large proportion of them don’t realize it, since those suffering from the disease don’t always develop visible symptoms.

The hepatitis C virus is most commonly spread today through sharing needles to inject drugs. Before widespread screening of blood donations began in 1992, it was also spread through blood transfusions.

Health officials believe hundreds of thousands of new hepatitis C infections were occurring each year in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them in the younger adults of the era ¿ the Baby Boomers.

Like many Baby Boomers, Cohen only realized after a lengthy period of infection that he was carrying hepatitis C, which can lead to scarring of the liver, and potentially fatal complications.

“I was stunned,” Cohen remembered. “It just took me a few days to process it. To think it had been in my system for 35 years or so without my knowing it, it was scary. It was frightening. No doubt about it. You think you know your body and what’s going on there.”

Cohen, a Democrat, served in the Senate from 1990-2004. Today, he’s the host of “The Burt Cohen Show,” a radio program focused on politics that airs twice weekly on a pair of local radio stations.

In 2008, Cohen underwent a treatment regimen for hepatitis C, which involved testing a new drug in development by a company called Vertex. He has since cleared the virus from his system.

Cohen said he has been paid in the past to speak on behalf of the company that developed the drug, specifically to encourage people to get tested for hepatitis C.

However, Cohen said he was motivated to bring his own experience to light this week to encourage Baby Boomers specifically to seek testing.

For the first time last month, the government began proposing that all Baby Boomers get tested for the disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in draft recommendations issued in mid-May that anyone born from 1945 to 1965 should get a one-time blood test to see if they have the liver-destroying virus.

CDC officials believe the new measure could lead 800,000 more Baby Boomers to get treatment and could save more than 120,000 lives.

“Baby boomers need to be tested,” he said. “It can be treated now, and there’s generally no symptoms.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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