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Baby boomers at risk as hep C deaths rise

21st February 2012

Hepatitis C is now responsible for more deaths in the United States than HIV/AIDS, according to new figures released by the government.


The incidence of both hepatitis C and B has been on the increase in recent years, partly because many people carry the viruses for years without knowing that they have it.

Figures for 1999-2007 released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a significant rise in deaths from hepatitis C, to 15,106, while deaths from hepatitis B remained constant.

By contrast, deaths from HIV had fallen to 12,734 by 2007.

People who die of the hepatitis C virus frequently suffer from chronic liver disease, co-infection with other viruses, alcohol-related conditions and minority status.

Chronic liver disease, co-infection with other viruses, Asian or Pacific Islander descent and alcohol-related conditions were also found in many patients who died with hepatitis B infections.

Most deaths from the two viruses were found in middle-aged people, CDC said.

CDC investigator Scott Holmberg said the two viruses now posed an urgent health threat in the United States.

The recent data shows that a total of 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, which is a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis.

However, as many as three-quarters of those who have the virus may be unaware that they have it, as the disease progresses slowly.

The virus is transmitted in a similar way to HIV, through sex, blood transfusions before screening began, and through intravenous drug use.

Cases of mother-to-infant transmission have also been found.

However, Holmberg said that while chronic hepatitis was a leading cause of premature death, it was preventable.

Untreated viral hepatitis leads to care and treatments costing hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, while early detection can save lives and treatment costs.

Holmberg said hepatitis testing had a critical role to play, and that there was an urgent need to boost hepatitis awareness among the US population and medical personnel.

Writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers based their findings on death records over the study period, collecting data on around 22 million people.

According to Holmberg, 73% of hepatitis C deaths were reported in the 45-64 age group.

He said the "baby boom" generation born between 1945 and 1964 had now reached a high-risk period for hepatitis C, resulting in an overall spike in cases.

There are currently vaccines in existence for hepatitis B, but not for hepatitis C.

The researchers forecast that the number of deaths from hepatitis C would rise to 35,000 a year by 2030.

University of Miami liver disease expert Eugene Schiff hailed the study as important because it authenticated what was already known.

Schiff, who was not involved in the study, called for routine hepatitis C screening.

He said current treatment regimes for hepatitis C involved a cocktail of drugs which many people found hard to tolerate, and that much-needed change was coming.

Treatments that do not include interferon will be made available to hepatitis C patients within a couple of years, he added.

He said a similar approach would be used as with HIV, of testing and treating, so as to tailor treatments to specific patients.

He said an interferon-free regime could yield cure rates approaching 100%.

Currently, the most up-to-date treatment for hepatitis C can cost US$60,000, but may be cost-effective.

A recent study by Stanford University health policy researchers found that while treating hepatitis C was expensive, it saved money on treatments needed when the disease had progressed, such as liver transplants.

They said that the cost was therefore justifiable in terms of results for people with advanced hepatitis C.


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