Hep C Deaths At An All Time High In The U.S.
Deaths associated with hepatitis C have reached an all-time high and surpassed the combined number of deaths from 60 other infectious diseases, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In 2014 deaths associated with Hep C topped 19,000, the CDC reported, and in 2013 more people died from hepatitis C-related causes than from HIV, pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis, and 57 other infectious diseases.
Why are deaths from Hep C increasing so rapidly right now?
Hep C is a very common but often asymptomatic viral infection of the liver. Hep C quietly progresses to cirrhosis in about a quarter of those infected over the course of 20 to 30 years. Once cirrhosis has developed, there is an increased risk for liver cancer and premature death. The likelihood of progressing to cirrhosis and liver cancer increases with additional stress to the liver from another health condition, or from drinking alcohol.
More than 3.2 million people in the U.S. have Hep C, but only about a quarter have been diagnosed. The majority of people with Hep C are baby boomers who were infected in the 1970s or 1980s. Because of Hep C’s slow progression to liver disease, the visible health consequences of the epidemic are really hitting Baby Boomers hard now. Many have been living with Hep C without signs or symptoms for years, and are now getting sick.
We can prevent deaths from Hep C
In a 2014 NYC Health Department study of people who died with Hep C over an 11-year period, the most common causes of death were found to be: cirrhosis, liver cancer, drug-related causes (such as overdose), and HIV. Hep C and HIV co-infected patients were found to be at highest risk for premature death (before age 65).
Another important finding of this study was that more than half of those that died, did so within only three years of being tested for Hep C.
This study highlights the modifiable risks for death in people with Hep C, most of which can be reduced through the following steps:
- Prevent progression to cirrhosis. You can reduce your risk of developing cirrhosis by getting treated and cured of Hep C, and by making healthy choices such as avoiding alcohol. The American Liver Foundation can help you find Hep C treatment in the U.S.
- Get screened for liver cancer. If you have cirrhosis, you should be screened for liver cancer every six months. If you catch liver cancer early, it can be treated successfully. Learn more about liver cancer.
- Treat addiction early. Treatment is available for every type of drug use and addiction. A combination of behavioral and medical treatment such as methadone or buprenorphine maintenance may be helpful for serious addictions. Find treatment centers.
- Get into care for all health conditions. The healthier you are, the healthier your liver can be. In particular, people with HIV and Hep C co-infection should be treated for Hep C as soon as possible.
- Get tested for Hep C early. The earlier you know you are infected, the better. There is treatment and a cure for Hep C. The first step is getting tested. Ask your doctor for a test at your next visit. If you don’t have a doctor, find test sites.
News of an increase in mortality from a disease that affects more than 3 million people in the U.S. can be alarming, but can also serve to raise awareness that will cause medical providers and people at risk to take action.
We are fortunate that there is great hope for people with Hep C today! Hep C can be treated and cured in the majority of patients in just a few months. Getting into care and treatment is a life saver.
See More Helpful Articles:
Hepatitis C Kills More Americans than Any Other Infectious Disease. Press Release: CDC, 2016.
Deaths among people with hepatitis C in New York City, 2000-2011. Clin Infect Dis. 2014.
Rising Mortality Associated With Hepatitis C Virus in the United States, 2003 – 2013. CDC Brief Report, Clinical Infectious Disease, 2016.
Nirah is a clinical social worker and public health professional who has been raising awareness about hepatitis C and liver health in NYC since 2007. She organizes the Hep Free NYC network in NYC. @HepFreeNYC