A rise in deaths among baby boomers unknowingly infected with hepatitis C in the U.S. is driving a Canadian emphasis on detecting and treating the liver disease.

Baby boomers who grew up during the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll culture of the 1960s may also now have the highly infectious disease, and Canadians in general may have contracted hepatitis C from transfusions in the 1980s before the blood supply was tested for the virus.

Hepatitis C is most commonly spread through infected needles.

Chronic infection can cause inflammation of the liver, scarring of the organ, cirrhosis and other complications, including liver cancer.

Dr. David Wong, director of the liver clinic at Toronto Western Hospital, has seen increasing numbers of people with hepatitis C infection.

A common scenario is someone who experimented with drugs as a teenager in 1968 just once or twice, and got infected without knowing it. Symptoms don't occur until there's liver failure about 20 to 30 years later, Wong said.

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Baby boomers should routinely get hepatitis C testing at least once, says Dr. David Wong of Toronto Western Hospital. (CBC)

"They're now trying to say if you're born between 1945 and 1965 — that is a baby boomer — you actually have a reasonable chance of having hepatitis C in North America," said Wong. "All of those people should routinely get hep C testing at least once."

A recent study in Ontario showed hepatitis C is the No. 1 cause of premature death from infectious disease, Wong said.

Hepatitis C infection rate exceeds HIV's

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said three per cent of baby boomers are infected and most are unaware that the virus is slowly causing damage.

Deaths are rising sharply: 15,000 in the U.S. were related to hepatitis C,  surpassing the nearly 13,000 deaths caused by HIV.

Shane Carr, 53, of Muskoka, Ont., believes he got hepatitis C after a doctor in Mexico gave him an injection for a fever using a dirty needle 26 years ago.

Carr said he was always healthy, so it was shocking to find out about the infection last year when he had a blood test required by an insurance company.

"My liver was basically scarred completely and I was in very grave condition," he recalled.

Wong is now treating Carr with expensive new drugs that have a cure rate of about 70 per cent. While the drug combinations have side-effects such as anemia, gastrointestinal problems and skin rashes, they are cheaper than a liver transplant for those with advanced disease.

"Now it's considered a curable disease; that makes all the difference," said Dr. Gary Rogg, an internist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Rogg has started raising the issue and was surprised at some longtime patients' test results.

Better drugs will likely hit the market in the next two or three years, Wong said, adding urgency to the public health search for those infected.

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe and The Associated Press