In a study in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine (abstract here), U.S. Centers for Disease Control researchers analyzed causes of death on more than 21.8 million U.S. death certificates filed between 1999 and 2007. Rates of death related to hepatitis C, a viral infection that causes chronic liver disease, rose at an average rate of .18 deaths per 100,000 persons per year. More than 15,000 people died from hepatitis C in 2007. HIV-related death rates declined .21 deaths per 100,000 people per year — 12,734 people died from HIV in 2007. Rates of death related to a third infection, hepatitis B, remained more or less constant over the study period, falling .02 deaths per 100,000 people per year to just more than 1,800 deaths in 2007.
Most of the hepatitis-related deaths were in relatively young people — 59.4% of deaths associated with hepatitis B in 2007 occurred in middle-aged people 45 to 64 years old. For hepatitis C, the portion of deaths in that age group was 73.4%.
Hepatitis victims’ youth portends a large and ever-increasing healthcare burden, study co-author Kathleen N. Ly and colleagues warned.
They suggested, however, that borrowing a page from the HIV playbook might help combat rising hepatitis death rates. “The decrease in deaths from HIV infection in the past decades reflects the availability and utilization of highly effective therapies, as well as effective national implementation of programs for prevention and care … a similar approach to HBV and HCV prevention might lead to similar reductions in mortality from viral hepatitis over time.”
A first step, wrote the National Institute of Health’s Dr. Harvey J. Alter and Dr. T. Jake Liang in an accompanying editorial, would be identifying more people who are infected with the hepatitis C virus, which is usually transmitted by sharing intravenous drug needles with infected people but can be passed along by other means as well. An estimated 50% to 75% of people with the illness don’t realize they have it, the physicians wrote.
The CDC has additional information about hepatitis C on its website. And click here for links to the editorial by Alter and Liang and other hepatitis-related research from the Annals of Internal Medicine.