Deaths from hepatitis C reach a new high

May 6, 2016 Providence Health Team

Deaths from hepatitis C hit an all-time high of 19,659 in 2014, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC said a second study showed that deaths from hepatitis C in 2013 surpassed the combined number of deaths from 60 other infectious diseases, including AIDS, tuberculosis and pneumonia.

The new numbers added urgency to previous calls by federal health officials for all baby boomers to get tested for hepatitis C.

Part of the problem is that hepatitis C is a silent killer. About 3.5 million Americans have the disease and roughly half are unaware of their infection, according to the CDC. Baby boomers - those born between 1945 and 1965 - are five times more likely to be infected than other adults. Many infected people have been living with the disease for years, possibly transmitting it to others.

Silent killer is curable

A study published in March in The Lancet says the reason for such a high rate of infection among boomers is that medical procedures right after World War II for injections and blood transfusions weren’t as safe as they are today.

The disease can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer, and it’s the No. 1 cause of liver transplants. The good news is that once diagnosed, patients can take advantage of new, highly effective treatments that can cure the vast majority of hepatitis C infections in two to three months.

A new kind of case

The data from the CDC study also pinpoints a new kind of hepatitis C case: people who inject drugs. Since 2010, infections have doubled and the CDC says there were more than 2,194 cases reported in 2014. The profile for most of these cases is:

  • Young and white
  • Injects drugs
  • From rural and suburban areas
  • Living in the Midwest and Eastern U.S.

“Because hepatitis C often has few noticeable symptoms, the number of new cases is likely much higher than what is reported,” said John W. Ward, M.D., director of the 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.”

Lack of knowledge seems to be the main reason so many people die from the curable disease. “Once hepatitis C testing and treatment are as routine as they are for high cholesterol and colon cancer, we will see people living the long, healthy lives they deserve," said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.

Who is at risk for hepatitis C?

Outside of baby boomers and drug users, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say people most at risk for hepatitis C:

  • Have been on long-term kidney dialysis
  • Have regular contact with blood at work (such as a health care worker)
  • Have unprotected sex with a person who has hepatitis C
  • Were born to a mother who had hepatitis C
  • Received a tattoo or acupuncture with needles that were not disinfected properly after being used on another person. The risk for this is low with licensed tattoo artists and acupuncturists.
  • Received an organ transplant from a doctor who has hepatitis C
  • Share personal items, such as toothbrushes and razors, with someone carrying hepatitis C

Symptoms of hepatitis C

Most people who are recently infected with hepatitis C do not show any symptoms, but the NIH says these symptoms can occur:

  • Pain in the right upper abdomen
  • Abdominal swelling due to fluid
  • Clay-colored or pale stools
  • Dark urine
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Itching
  • Jaundice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting

If you are a baby boomer or otherwise suspect that you might have hepatitis C or be at risk for it, talk to your health care provider about getting screened. You can find a Providence provider here.

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