Hepatitis C Cases Triple, and Opioid Crisis Is Mainly to Blame

drugs and syringe.
(Image credit: Evlakhov Valeriy/Shutterstock)

New cases of hepatitis C have tripled over a five-year period, and the exploding opioid crisis may be largely to blame. 

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that 2,436 cases were diagnosed in 2015, compared with just 850 cases in 2010. However, that estimate may largely underestimate the toll from hepatitis C, as many people who are newly infected have no symptoms and do not get diagnosed with the disease. The true number of people who contracted hepatitis C in 2015 may be as high as 34,000, the CDC estimates.

Hepatitis C kills more people in the U.S. than any other infectious disease that the CDC tracks. In 2015, 20,000 Americans died due to hepatitis C. People contract hepatitis C through infected blood or by using contaminated needles.

"By testing, curing and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death," Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said in a statement. "We must reach the hardest-hit communities with a range of prevention and treatment services that can diagnose people with hepatitis C and link them to treatment. This wide range of services can also prevent the misuse of prescription drugs and ultimately stop drug use — which can also prevent others from getting hepatitis C in the first place."

The new data reveal that new hepatitis C cases are rising the fastest in younger people ages 20 to 29 years old. The likeliest cause of this increase is a rise in injection-drug use tied to the opioid epidemic, according to the CDC. Most of the people who are already infected with hepatitis C in the United States are baby boomers between the ages of 52 and 72. This older generation is six times likelier to be infected with hepatitis C than younger generations.

Another trend in the data shows that women of childbearing age also have rising rates of hepatitis C, increasing the risk that infants will become infected with the disease, according to another CDC study.

Hepatitis C is deadly, in part, because it can lead to liver cancer or liver failure. New medicines are available that can cure people of hepatitis C, according to the CDC. However, these drugs are very expensive, making it difficult for some people to get access to them in the early stages of the disease, Amy Nunn, of the Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island, previously told Live Science.

Originally published on Live Science.

Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.