By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
Hepatitis C kills more people in the United States each year than any other infectious disease, yet few people realize how widespread the virus is or know what areas of the country are most impacted.
A new project out of Emory University in Atlanta sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aims to change that. Using mathematical modeling, researchers have created an interactive map of the United States that estimates and offers a stark visual of Hepatitis C prevalence in each state. The map is available at HepVu.org.
California ranks first in the country when it comes to the number people living with Hepatitis C. The project estimates that almost 630,000 Californians have the disease, close to double the number of people infected in Texas, which ranks second.
“Hepatitis C has really emerged as the leading cause of death from infectious diseases,” said HepVu’s chief scientist Patrick Sullivan, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.
Hepatitis is a viral infection that inflames the liver and, if left untreated, can lead to liver cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Yet many people infected with Hepatitis C have no symptoms and unknowingly live with the virus for years.
Baby boomers – people born between 1945 and 1965 – account for a disproportionate number of Hepatitis C infections. The virus is transmitted by contact with infected blood. Today, most people contract Hepatitis C by sharing needles for drug use. However, people in the baby boomer generation may have the virus because of past blood transfusions or injections that weren’t subject to modern-day screening standards.
It’s not clear why California has such a high number of Hepatitis C cases. Experts attribute much of the prevalence to the state’s high concentration of seniors and large population. Almost 1 in 5 Californians are baby boomers.
Sullivan said he hopes the HepVu map increases awareness about Hepatitis C among health care providers and the public, and spurs greater action to combat the disease. Hepatitis C is curable if detected early enough thanks to new drugs that hit the market in recent years.
California has invested more in programs to address Hepatitis C than any other state, according to Emalie Huriaux, director of federal and state affairs for Project Inform, a Hepatitis C advocacy group based in San Francisco. The state has put $8 million toward Hepatitis C-related services in the past three years, and made a $3 million annual commitment to fund syringe exchange programs, she said.
“This is all more investment than other states have made in the last few years, but it’s still a drop in the bucket in terms of the burden of the disease and how much work there is to do,” Huriaux said.
Doctors are supposed to routinely test baby boomers for Hepatitis C, but many patients are falling through the cracks, said Bill Remak, chairman of the non-profit California Hepatitis C Task Force. That may be because doctors don’t insist on testing, or because patients don’t know to ask for it, he said.
The cost of treatment is another challenge, Remak added. Although prices are coming down, treatment for Hepatitis C still costs tens of thousands of dollars and not all insurance companies cover it. Even if the treatment is partially covered, out-of-pocket expenses for some patients can be too high, he said.
Today is National Hepatitis Testing Day. Visit https://gettested.cdc.