Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that hepatitis C (HCV), a blood-borne disease that affects the liver, kills more Americans than HIV-related causes. Most of these deaths occurred among middle-aged adults who acquired the virus years before, were undiagnosed and the disease progressed over time. Looking at data from 1999–2007, researchers found that on average, 15,000 people died each year from HCV, in comparison to the 13,000 who died from health causes related to HIV.
About 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis, the CDC authors said. An estimated one-half to three-quarters of infected adults are unaware they have the disease, which progresses slowly.
Hepatitis C is spread through injection drug use, from blood transfusions received before routine blood-screening began in 1992, and through sexual contact. In some cases, it passes from mothers to infants.
"Chronic hepatitis is a leading and preventable cause of premature death in the United States.... Over time, leaving viral hepatitis untreated can lead to costly care and treatments, and lifetime costs can total hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, early detection and intervention can be cost-effective and save lives."
What's also helping this epidemic worsen is the lack of the awareness — too many people are unaware of the risks of contracting HCV.
"These data underscore the urgent need to address the health threat posed by chronic hepatitis B and C in the United States," said investigator Dr. Scott Holmberg, chief of the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch in CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis.
And don't think that HCV isn't our problem, because it is.
According to the CDC, while African-Americans account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, we account for 22 percent of the chronic HCV cases diagnosed. This number may even be higher when you take into account how many of us are living with HCV and don't know. Also, 25 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are co-infected with HCV. Given the disproportionate rates of HIV in our community — HCV is something that we need to be concerned about.
It's also important to note that historically, HCV has been harder to treat in African-Americans. Past research has shown that HCV treatment has had less success in Black patients, curing between 19 to 26 percent of Black patients, as opposed to 40 percent of white patients. Yet some progress has been made with new drugs. Last year, BET.com reported about how a new drug called Victrelis cured roughly 40 percent of African-Americans patients in half the time of traditional treatment.
While hepatitis A and B have vaccines, HCV does not. Talk to your doctor or health-care practitioner about getting tested for HCV and how you can protect yourself from this virus. To learn more about HCV go here.
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(Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)