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Hepatitis C-Related Deaths Reach All-Time High In US

Hepatitis C is now killing more Americans than any other infections combined, new government data has revealed.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report Wednesday found that hepatitis C-related deaths reached an all-time high in 2014 at 19,659. This surpassed the total combined number of fatalities from 60 other infectious diseases reported to the agency, including HIV, tuberculosis, and pneumococcal condition.

Dr. John W. Ward, director of the CDC’s viral hepatitis division, called it “very alarming,” pointing to the fact that many baby boomers got infected in post World War II years when technologies for blood transfusion and injections were not yet as safe as today.

"The virus that causes hepatitis C was not yet discovered [back then]. So blood banks were not screening the blood supply for hepatitis C and many people got infected that way,” he explained to CBS News, also citing the less-than-optimal infection control measures of health care systems back then.

Baby boomers, or those born between 1945 and 1965, are part of the about 3.5 million Americans who are living with hepatitis C – half of which do not know they are infected. In 2013 alone, more than half of related deaths took place in the 55 to 64 age range.

The CDC report also warned of hepatitis C infections in drug-injecting young people, with new cases more than doubling since 2010 and climbing to over 2,100 reported cases in 2014.

Ward said that because of underreporting and limited screening, the total number of new infections is approximating 30,000 per year, showing that both fatalities and new infections are rising.

“Not everyone is getting tested and diagnosed,” he mourned in a CNN report. “People don’t get referred to care as fully as they should.”

Hepatitis C, a viral condition, leads to liver inflammation, with chronic or untreated cases potentially resulting in cirrhosis, liver cancer, and eventually liver failure. New oral drugs have flooded the market and are usually prescribed in combination, showing an 80 to 95 percent effectiveness rate.

The price, however, remains a drawback, as a three-month supply – deemed the standard course of treatment – can cost up to $120,000. Many insurance firms and state Medicaid programs thus limit treatment to individuals with the most severe liver disease cases.

Hepatitis C infections frequently come from sharing of needles and other tools for using illegal drugs. Rarely do people get it from a shot with infected blood (unless needles are reused out of poverty or lack of health supplies) or an improperly cleaned equipment for tattooing or piercing.

The virus does not spread via casual contact like coughing or kissing, but sexual transmission is possible, albeit with very small risk unless one has multiple partners.

Ward, however, said, another transmission route is worrisome: from mother to child during birth. Health specialists are trying to detect the infection in infants and treat them accordingly, he added.

Government agencies recommend one-time hepatitis C screening for everyone born from 1945 to 1965, as well as regular testing for high-risk groups such as those injecting drugs.

Photo: Andres Rueda | Flickr

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