Hepatitis C deaths hit all-time high in United States

Almost 20,000 people died of hepatitis C in 2014, an all-time high, the CDC says.

Story highlights

  • Almost 20,000 people died of hepatitis C in 2014, an all-time high, CDC says
  • Many at risk are baby boomers exposed before the nation's blood supply was screened
  • New cases of hepatitis C doubled as well, mostly among young, white drug users

(CNN)Hepatitis C-related deaths reached an all-time high in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday, surpassing total combined deaths from 60 other infectious diseases including HIV, pneumococcal disease and tuberculosis. The increase occurred despite recent advances in medications that can cure most infections within three months.

"Not everyone is getting tested and diagnosed, people don't get referred to care as fully as they should, and then they are not being placed on treatment," said Dr. John Ward, director of CDC's division of viral hepatitis.
At the same time, surveillance data analyzed by the CDC shows an alarming uptick in new cases of hepatitis C, mainly among those with a history of using injectable drugs. From 2010 to 2014, new cases of hepatitis C infection more than doubled. Because hepatitis C has few noticeable symptoms, said Ward, the 2,194 cases reported in 2014 are likely only the tip of the iceberg.
    "Due to limited screening and underreporting, we estimate the number of new infections is closer to 30,000 per year," Ward said. "So both deaths and new infections are on the rise."
    "These statistics represent the two battles that we are fighting. We must act now to diagnose and treat hidden infections before they become deadly, and to prevent new infections."

    Silent but deadly disease

    Hepatitis C is a viral disease that causes liver inflammation. Those with chronic or untreated infections can develop cirrhosis, liver cancer and liver failure. An estimated 3.5 million Americans live with chronic hepatitis C. The CDC estimates that half of those might not even know they are infected.
    The greatest risk involves baby boomers -- born between the years of 1945 and 1965 -- who are most likely to have received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992. That's the year all donated blood and organs began to be screened for evidence of the virus.
    "The average age of death is 59," said Ward, "very much in the age group of baby boomers. But most people do not know they are infected, because people don't really feel ill until the disease is very advanced."
    Data from death certificates shows a total of 19,659 deaths in 2014, up from 11,051 in 2003. Because death certificates often underreport hepatitis C, Ward said, that number could also be much higher.
    "These deaths should not be going up, they should be going down," Ward said. "We want eve