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Hepatitis C kills more people than any other infectious disease in US, CDC says
Liz Highleyman, 2016-05-06 10:10:00

The number of deaths due to hepatitis C is at an all-time high in the US and exceeds those attributable to 60 other infectious diseases including HIV and tuberculosis, according to new surveillance data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, a related Italian study found that hepatitis C patients who are successfully treated have a life expectancy similar to that of the general population.

An estimated 3.5 million people in the US are living with hepatitis C. Over years or decades chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection can lead to severe liver disease including cirrhosis, liver cancer and end-stage liver failure; many people infected years ago are now developing serious complications. New direct-acting antiviral (DAA) therapies can cure hepatitis C more than 90% of the time, but if treatment is started too late liver damage may not be reversible.

The new preliminary CDC surveillance data show that there were 19,659 deaths associated with hepatitis C in 2014, up from 11,051 in 2003 - a 78% increase over the past decade. The hepatitis C death rate was especially high among people age 55 to 64 years.

Hepatitis C prevalence in the US is highest among 'Baby Boomers' (people born between 1945 and 1965), many of whom were infected decades ago. But cases of acute HCV infection have more than doubled since 2010 - reaching 2,194 in 2014 - and these are largely occurring among younger people who inject drugs in rural and suburban areas of the Midwest and Eastern US.

"Because hepatitis C often has few noticeable symptoms, the number of new cases is likely much higher than what is reported," said Dr John Ward, director of CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis. "Due to limited screening and underreporting, we estimate the number of new infections is closer to 30,000 per year. We must act now to diagnose and treat hidden infections before they become deadly and to prevent new infections."

The CDC recommends comprehensive prevention programs to reduce HCV infections among drug users, including regular hepatitis C testing (along with hepatitis B and HIV testing), rapid linkage to medical care for those who test positive and access to substance use treatment, sterile injection equipment, and other services.