Hepatitis C Cases Fall 16% in U.S., CDC Survey Finds

The number of Americans with hepatitis C fell 16 percent to 2.7 million over almost a decade, a government survey found, just as new, more effective treatments for the chronic liver disease reach the market.

The survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention covers data gathered from 2003 to 2010. It updates information collected in 1999 to 2002 that counted 3.2 million people as being infected. Hepatitis C can be symptomless for years before it begins to scar the liver, leading to cancer, organ failure and, eventually, a transplant.

New drugs such as Gilead Science Inc.’s Sovaldi, which costs $84,000 for 12 weeks of treatment, are coming to market as more-convenient therapies with with fewer side effects. The profile of U.S. patients with the disease may stymie sales of the drugs, according to the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Our study and others have found that persons with chronic hepatitis C virus infection are frequently poor and less educated, factors that could pose barriers to the receipt of these costly novel hepatitis C virus treatments,” the study’s authors said.

The researchers looked at 20,042 patients’ blood samples to test hepatitis C rates, and found that 1 percent of those tested were infected. Neither new data nor the previous study include people in prison, where hepatitis C rates are higher, or the homeless.

Trend Decreasing

The study released yesterday put the range of those infected with the virus in the U.S. at 2.2 million to 3.2 million, compared with 2.7 million to 3.9 million in the earlier survey. “The trend is that there’s a decrease in the number of people living with hepatitis C,” John Ward, the CDC’s director of the division of viral hepatitis, said in a telephone interview.

The CDC, based in Atlanta, recommends screening for everyone in the U.S. born from 1945 to 1965. The virus is transmitted by blood and wasn’t tested for until 1992. Patients can be infected from blood transfusions as well as through intravenous drug use. About 150 million people worldwide are estimated to be infected with the virus.

While the total number of U.S. patients may be declining as people die from the disease, the rate of new cases is increasing as younger people -- mostly intravenous drug uses -- become infected, he said.

Infection rates were highest among males, blacks and those 40- to 59-years-old. Those with the virus were more likely not to have completed education past high school, and to have incomes less than $23,000. They were also more likely to be intravenous drug users or have had more than 10 sexual partners, the study found.

Gilead, AbbVie

Drugs for the disease are being developed by Gilead, AbbVie Inc., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Johnson & Johnson and Merck & Co. Gilead’s Sovaldi was approved last year. The new therapies are taken as pills and replace injections.

Because the disease is symptomless early on, patients may not seek treatments because they don’t know they have the virus, researchers said.

“All available current information indicates that no more than one half of persons with chronic HCV infection have been tested for anti-HCV; many who are anti-HCV–positive do not receive medical care,” the researchers said in the study.

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