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New Hepatitis C Infections Reach 15-Year High

MAY 12, 2017 | KRISTI ROSA
Preliminary surveillance data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the number of reported hepatitis C virus (HCV) cases has almost tripled in number from 2011-2015, “reaching a 15-year high.”
 
The CDC attributes the rising numbers amoung younger individuals primarily to injection drug use related to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States. However, younger individuals aren’t the only ones affected by HCV; it turns out that baby boomers are the ones with the biggest burden.
 
According to the CDC, half of the individuals who are living with the virus are not even aware that they are infected. This is because the vast majority of individuals infected with the virus do not present with many symptoms, and therefore, new infections remain undiagnosed.
 
In addition, the CDC notes that because surveillance resources are limited, the number of cases may be underreported. For example, a total of 850 cases were reported to the CDC in 2010 and 2436 cases were reported in 2015, but these numbers do not necessarily “reflect the true scale of the epidemic.” In fact, the CDC estimates that the number of cases that actually occurred in the United States in 2015 is significantly more than that: 34,000, to be exact.
 
HCV is the leading cause of death for more Americans than any other infectious disease, according to the CDC. In 2015, a staggering 20,000 individuals died because of HCV-related causes. Most of these individuals were 55 years of age or older, according to the new data.
 
“By testing, curing, and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death,” Jonathan Mermin, MD, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention said in the press release. “We must reach the hardest-hit communities with a range of prevention and treatment services that can diagnose people with hepatitis C and link them to treatment. This wide range of services can also prevent the misuse of prescription drugs and ultimately stop drug use—which can also prevent others from getting hepatitis C in the first place.”
 
Another insight researchers gleaned from the data is that infections are “increasing most rapidly” among younger individuals. Those individuals aged 20 to 29 account for the “highest overall number of new infections” reported in the surveillance data. Why? The CDC attributes this to the fact that injection drug use is increasing as the opioid epidemic ravages the United States. Furthermore, “infections are growing among women of childbearing age—putting the youngest generation of Americans at risk.”
 
Still, the majority of the 3.5 million Americans who are living with HCV are those who were born between 1945 and 1965, namely baby boomers. Not only are baby boomers six times more likely to have the infection compared with other age groups, they are also at increased risk of virus-related death.
 
These data underscore the need for stronger testing, treatment, and prevention of HCV. To this end, the CDC is calling for approaches that will tackle two epidemics: opioid addiction and infectious diseases associated with injection drug use. In fact, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has come up with five strategies meant to do just that. The strategies are:
  • Improving access to treatment and recovery services
  • Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs
  • Strengthening our understanding of the opioid epidemic through better public health surveillance
  • Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction
  • Advancing better practices for pain management
     
In addition, the CDC shares that when it comes to prevention, syringe service programs (SSPs) can also be beneficial to communities in that they can “link people to treatment to stop drug use, [and provide] testing for infectious diseases that can be spread to others, and other medical care.”
 
Hepatitis C is not only treatable, but curable now thanks to new medications. However, many of the individuals who are most in need of treatment cannot access these life-saving drugs. The HHS kept this in mind for their National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan, 2017-2020, which aims to eliminate all new hepatitis infections, a plan which has been dubbed “feasible if the right steps are taken,” in a recent report.
 
“Stopping hepatitis C will eliminate an enormous disease and economic burden for all Americans,” John Ward, MD, director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis said in the press release. “We have a cure for this disease and the tools to prevent new infections. Now we need a substantial, focused, and concerted national effort to implement the National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan and make effective prevention tools and curative treatment available to Americans in need.”
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