Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill into law Wednesday that will require hospitals and health care centers to offer hepatitis C testing to anyone born between 1945 and 1965.
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, is the first of its kind in the country.
"Hepatitis C is a debilitating and potentially fatal disease that disproportionately affects the Baby Boomer generation," Cuomo said Wednesday in a statement.
Hepatitis C is a notoriously silent epidemic and the largest single reason for liver transplants, doctors say. The insidious virus homes in on the liver where it persists for years, even decades, producing symptoms so vague that many who carry it may remain unaware until irrevocable liver damage has occurred.
An estimated 3 million people are infected nationwide, according to federal statistics.
Despite the epidemic, the infection is curable.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration convenes hearings Thursday on a new generation of therapies expected to reduce the period of treatment -- now 24 to 48 days -- to 12, said Dr. David Bernstein, who heads the division of liver diseases at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
Targeting baby boomers for testing will help ferret out silent carriers, he said.
"Eighty percent or more of people who are infected are in this age group," Bernstein said. "These are people who were born before widespread use of disposable needles," he noted, recalling a health care practice of a bygone era that may have helped spread the virus.
Intravenous drug use, unsanitary tattooing and acupuncture are other possible routes of spread, Bernstein said.
The bill was sponsored in the State Senate by Health Committee chairman Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau). "By requiring health care providers to offer hepatitis C testing . . . we have an opportunity to protect individuals from the leading cause of liver disease," Hannon said.
Assemb. Kenneth Zebrowski (D-Rockland), the measure's other sponsor, said his father, a former Assembly member from Rockland County, died of hepatitis C-related complications at age 61.
"My father passed away from hepatitis C in 2007, and my family experienced firsthand the lack of information and knowledge surrounding this epidemic," Zebrowski said.