The New Face of Hepatitis C

Long considered an affliction of the baby boomer generation, hepatitis C now has spiked among a surprising new population: young people.

Hepatitis C infections hit a 15-year high in 2015, new information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals.  And the rate of infection almost tripled over five years.

Americans 55 years of age and older still accounted for most of the roughly 20,000 hepatitis C deaths in 2015.  But new infections overwhelmingly affected young people 20-29 years old. That includes a concerning subpopulation: women of childbearing age.  In fact, the CDC reported that:

  • National rates of hepatitis C detection among women of childbearing age increased by 22%
  • The proportion of infants born to infected mothers increased by 68%.

Increased transmission is attributed to the rise in illicit injection drug use, particularly heroin addiction growing out of the larger opioid abuse epidemic.  The overlapping crises are especially rampant in rural Appalachia.  Kentucky, for example, had the highest incidence of acute hepatitis C infection during 2011–2014, where the detection rate among women of childbearing age increased by more than 200%.  Meanwhile, the proportion of infants born to infected women increased by 124%.

[READ: Hepatitis C and Opioid Abuse Epidemics Combine to Pose New Crisis]

Increased transmission renews calls for eliminating hepatitis C, now curable in a matter of months with direct-acting antiviral drugs.  A recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reiterates that elimination is feasible but requires significant policy shifts to make treatment more widely available.

The report points out roadblocks such as health plan prior authorizations that restrict treatment to only the sickest patients – often not the same patients actively transmitting the disease.   Empowering a broader range of health care providers to prescribe hepatitis C cures could also encourage elimination, the report explains.

The National Academies’ efforts reflect a larger, global effort to formulate policies that combat hepatitis C and its transmission.  The World Health Organization hopes to see both hepatitis B and C eliminated by the year 2030.

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