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New Hepatitis C Infections Soar to 15-Year High, CDC Says

  • Infection rates rise in young adults, thanks to drug abuse
  • Drugmakers had been running out of already diagnosed patients

The number of Americans newly diagnosed with hepatitis C hit a 15-year high in 2015, as the viral disease spread unrelentingly among young adult drug users and detection efforts gained more traction.

Infections are growing fastest among Americans in their 20s, because of injection drug use, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The abuse of heroin and prescription opioids has boomed in the U.S. in recent years, creating a new generation of addicts at risk from needle-sharing. There were 34,000 new infections in 2015, the agency estimated.

“We have seen the states that have the largest increases among young people with drugs they inject are also having these astronomical increases in rates of hepatitis C,” said John Ward, director of the CDC’s division of viral hepatitis. "We feel like the 34,000 estimate is a fairly conservative one and the problem is getting larger."

While grim news from a public health standpoint, the rising number of infections is an opportunity for drugmakers including Gilead Sciences Inc., AbbVie Inc. and Merck & Co. that have introduced effective cures. Their business has slowed as previously diagnosed patients have been treated -- Gilead said in February it was running out of patients.

Much of the initial population for treatment came from baby boomers who contracted the disease decades ago from tainted blood products. While patients may have known they were infected for years, they had to wait for the new therapies to come along. Those patients-in-waiting helped Gilead sell $12.49 billion of its hepatitis C pills in the U.S. in 2015, the biggest new drug introduction in history.

Most Vulnerable

Older, long-infected patients remain the most vulnerable, with more of them living with and dying from the infections. The number of new cases among young people pales in comparison, said Brian Skorney, an analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co.

Between 2 million to 4 million people in the U.S. have hepatitis C, Skorney said. The issue is getting them diagnosed, getting them interested in treatment, and getting insurance to pay, he said.

“It probably doesn’t move the needle at all -- there’s so many patients with hepatitis C” already, Skorney said by phone. “The patients who are getting diagnosed are certainly not taking good care of themselves, and therefore are harder candidates to get in and get treatment.”

Infections Across America

Among the new cases, young white Americans living in the suburbs or rural areas were most likely to get infected, with cases widespread in Appalachia, the Midwest and New England, the CDC said. The highest rates were in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, despite a lack of increased funding for detecting new infections by the CDC during the years the survey was conducted.

The rise in the number of new cases also points to the success of surveillance efforts put in place in anticipation of novel pills, the first of which was Gilead’s Sovaldi in 2013.

There’s the potential to eradicate the virus from the U.S. using a combination of infection prevention, increasing access to the new pills and making sure the drugs are taken correctly, according to the CDC’s Ward. It often takes years to start affecting the body, eventually damaging the liver.

“We have a cure for this disease and the tools to prevent new infections,” he said in a statement accompanying the research. “Now we need a substantial, focused and concerted national effort” to make the tools and treatments available to all Americans, he said.

Even with the new surveillance efforts, hepatitis C detection can be difficult, particularly among younger patients who may be using drugs and are less likely get regular medical care. The CDC received reports of 2,436 new cases in 2015, the most recent numbers available, up from 850 cases in 2010.

There are 3.5 million people living with hepatitis C infections nationwide, with the number of deaths tied to the virus rising to 19,629 in 2015. About half of those who died were aged 55 to 63, the CDC said.

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