The CDC said that one in 30 Americans in that age group—more than 2 million people—have been infected with hepatitis C. Most don't know they have the virus, which can cause liver diseases, including liver cancer (the fastest-rising cause of cancer-related deaths), and is the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S. According to the CDC, most of the 15,000 Americans who die each year from hepatitis C-related illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer are in this age group. These deaths have increased “steadily for over a decade and are projected to grow significantly in coming years,” the CDC said.
The CDC followed up this past May in announcing that only half of the people in the U.S. infected with hepatitis C have been tested for the disease.
“Because these individuals are at serious risk for liver cancer, disease and death, I am excited about this innovative collaboration with Quest Diagnostics and believe it will help improve our understanding of how people access hepatitis C testing and care across the nation,” Dr. John Ward, director of CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis, said in a news release.
According to the announcement, researchers from Quest and the Division of Viral Hepatitis will share access to de-identified hepatitis C test results from Quest. The de-identified data, gathered from all U.S. states and the District of Columbia, “will include results of screening and confirmatory diagnostic tests as well as genotyping and viral load tests used by clinicians to manage treatment,” according to a Quest statement.
“Data will be evaluated to identify and track epidemiological trends in hepatitis C virus infection, testing and treatment, and evaluate how those trends differ based on gender, age, geography and clinical management,” according to the statement. The results of the collaboration may be jointly published in peer-reviewed journals and presented at scientific conferences.
Although treatments for hepatitis C have been available for some time, thanks to a pair of new drugs which are effective in a shorter period of time and are better tolerated by patients, the chances of a patient staying the course and eradicating the virus are dramatically improved, according to Dr. Rick Pesano, medical director, infectious diseases, at Quest.
For now, those drugs are indicated for just one of the six subtypes of the virus, genotype 1, the most common, encountered in about 70% of U.S. cases. But there are more than 40 drugs in development, Pesano said, so, “By next year, this is going to change. I guarantee, that we'll have drugs on the market that can treat more than one genotype.”
The reason baby boomers are being targeted, he said, is because the virus takes 20 to 30 years before its effects begin to manifest themselves in cirrhosis or cancer. From purely a healthcare cost perspective, intervention could save a patient the higher costs of hospitalization or a liver transplant later.
“Getting rid of the virus is an absolute, clear positive thing for their health,” Pesano said. “There are publications that state in fact, if you can intervene at any point in time, you can minimize disease progression.”
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn