Hepatitis C, a disease that infects the liver and could lead to serious health problems such as liver cancer and cirrhosis e.g. the scarring of the liver, is difficult to treat, which is apparently one of the reasons for the very prohibitive costs of drugs that treat hepatitis C virus (HCV). Gilead's breakthrough HCV drug, for instance, costs $1,000 per pill.

The prevalence of the disease, which is transmitted through infected blood and currently affects about one in 100 individuals in the U.S., however, may drop to one in 1,500 come 2036, according to a group of researchers who said that increased screening regimens and the availability of better treatments could make hepatitis C a rare disease 22 years from now.

For their new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine on Aug. 5, Jagpreet Chhatwal, from the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston who conducted the National Institutes of Health-funded research while he was still at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and colleagues developed a computer model that gives an estimate on how new drugs and expanded screenings could affect the prevalence of HCV infection in the coming years.

The researchers were then able to predict that by 2036, hepatitis C would be rare disease, which Chhatwal explained as a condition that affects only one in 1,500 people. Under currently conditions, more than 124,000 cases of cirrhosis, nearly 79,000 cases of liver cancer, 126,500 deaths and almost 10,000 liver transplants could be prevented by 2050.

"This is, indeed, a very interesting time for hepatitis C patients and providers," Chhatwal said. "Several changes have happened in the last two years, including screening policy updates and availability of highly effective therapies."

Chhatwal and colleagues said that under current screening regimens, about 487,000 cases of HCV could be identified within the next decade but reducing the prevalence of hepatitis to one in 1,500 could be achieved by 2026, or 10 years earlier than their 2036 prediction under current conditions, if the U.S. adopts more aggressive screening procedures.

The researchers said that while 487,000 cases of HCV could be identified within the next decade under screening regimens, the number could jump to 933,700 cases should the U.S. adopt a one-time, universal screening policy.

"New therapies for HCV infection and widespread implementation of screening and treatment will play an important role in reducing the burden of HCV disease," the researchers wrote. "More aggressive screening recommendations are needed to identify a large pool of infected patients."

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