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Meg Farris / Eyewitness News
Email: mfarris@wwltv.com | Twitter: @megfarriswwl

NEWORLEANS-- Five million Americans have an illness known as the silent killer, but 75 percent of them don't know it.

Doctors say baby boomers and people who get manicures and pedicures need to get checked.

If you are a baby boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, you are the group most at risk for having hepatitis C and not even knowing it.

Doctors say it may have been because there was a lot of needle sharing in the '70s and even sharing of razors to shave.

'The baby boomers may have acquired it when they were teenagers, 20's and 30's. A lot of them don't know how they got it. They may not have used drugs. They could have gotten it from somebody else, their college roommate, but they're at risk. Now this virus takes 20 to 50 years to development advanced liver disease,' said Dr. Michael Ryan, a gastroenterologist with digestive and liver disease specialists of Norfolk, Virginia. He is also a clinical professor of medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Hepatitis C is a virus that over years causes liver failure and is the number one cause for liver transplants in the U.S.

'As of 2007, it's now caused more deaths than HIV or AIDS. Fifteen thousand people are dying per year from hepatitis C. The real concern is in the next 10 or 15 years maybe 30,000 to 40,000 per year,' he added.

Those at risk along with baby boomers are people who used drugs, even cocaine. People with tattoos or body piercing represent 25 percent of those who have hepatitis C.

If you had a blood transfusion before 1992 you are at higher risk. Health care workers are at double the risk. But there is only a two percent transmission rate between sexual partners.

There is also growing concern for people who get pedicures and used straight razors in the barber shops.

'We're actually trying to develop regulations for this. What I would encourage you to do, is if you're going to get pedicures, is to buy your own equipment. Many people, there are (medical) societies that are going to start recommending that as well. I'll actually scare you a little bit. One of my partners' wives actually got it from a pedicure recently and we were able to cure her,' said Dr. Ryan.

The good news is drugs are on the horizon that work better and faster, like for this patient.

'With the new medications in development, I was lucky enough in 2006 to participate in a clinical trial. One of the medications that did the trick for me in only 24 weeks. So by comparison it was a cake walk,' said Brian Graham, 57, who discovered he had the condition on a routine exam. He went through three 48-week courses of older treatments from 1998 to 2005 that did not work.

Now his prognosis is good.

'I am virus free and I have been since, officially 2007, and my liver's in better shape now than it had been 14 years ago.'

Doctors encourage people to bring their own nail tools to pedicures and manicures .

At least 80 percent of people with hepatitis C have no symptoms, and 40 percent have normal livers, so you have to get the specific blood test for the virus.

For more information including a full survey methodology, go here: www.IDHepC.org and www.gastro.org

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