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Death Rate from Hepatitis C on the Rise

< Feb. 22, 2012 > -- The number of deaths from hepatitis C is on the upswing in the U.S., and the trend is likely to continue because many people infected with the virus don't know they have it.

Photo of doctor talking with patient in office

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a liver disease that's primarily spread through infected blood. It can be either short term, called acute, or long term, called chronic. Few people develop early symptoms to warn them that they are infected. The chronic form of the disease attacks the liver and is a leading cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis in this country.

About 3.2 million people in the U.S. have chronic HCV. Those hardest hit are people who were born between 1945 and 1965, the CDC says. And most of those people probably contracted the disease in the 1970s and 1980s, when the infection rates were at their peak.

Higher rate than HIV

A new government report says that more people die from chronic HCV than from HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. But early diagnosis and treatment of HCV can help save lives.

"Chronic hepatitis is a leading and preventable cause of premature death in the United States," says Scott Holmberg, M.D., at the CDC. Dr. Holmberg is a co-author of the report.

In addition to infected blood, HCV can be passed on through injection drug use and sexual contact, and from mother to infant.

More screening needed

The new report, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, highlights the need to increase hepatitis awareness and the critical importance of screening tests, Dr. Holmberg says. Screening will increase diagnosis and treatment, reducing hepatitis-related deaths, he says.

Dr. Holmberg and his colleagues used the death records of 22 million Americans from 1999 to 2007. They looked for people who had died from HCV, hepatitis B, and HIV.

The researchers found that by 2007, deaths from HCV totaled 15,000 a year. But deaths from HIV had fallen to 13,000 a year by 2007. Most of the HCV deaths - 73 percent -- occurred in people who were middle-aged.

Sobering statistics

Vaccines are available to help prevent hepatitis B, but not HCV. If current trends continue, deaths from HCV are expected to reach 35,000 a year by 2030, researchers say.

Better treatments for HCV are on the way, says Eugene Schiff, M.D., at the University of Miami. In about two years, interferon-free treatment will be available, he says. This means higher cure rates with fewer side effects, which will make treatment tolerable by most patients.

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Symptoms of Hepatitis C

Most people who contract hepatitis C don't have any symptoms. Or symptoms may be so mild that a visit to the doctor seems unnecessary. The following are the most common symptoms for hepatitis C:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Vague stomach pain

  • Jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes

  • Fever

  • Dark yellow urine

  • Light-colored stools

  • Muscle and joint pain

Symptoms may occur from two weeks to six months after exposure. Keep in mind that the symptoms of hepatitis C may resemble other medical conditions or problems.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

CDC - Hepatitis C

CDC - The Increasing Burden of Mortality from Viral Hepatitis in the United States Between 1999 and 2007

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Hepatitis C