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Hepatitis C Causing Liver Damage in Greater Numbers: Study

TUESDAY, May 22 (HealthDay News) -- Hundreds of thousands of Americans infected with chronic hepatitis C virus could develop potentially life-threatening liver complications over the next few years, according to a new study.

Researchers evaluated medical insurance claims data and found that more than 200,000 hepatitis C patients had advanced liver disease in 2008, and estimated that another 300,000 patients could have advanced liver disease by 2015.

The risk of developing advanced liver disease is especially high among baby boomers, who account for 82 percent of hepatitis C patients in the United States, according to the findings, which are scheduled to be presented Tuesday at the Digestive Disease Week meeting in San Diego.

The study was funded by Vertex Pharmaceuticals, makers of the hepatitis C drug Incivek (telaprevir).

"This alarming finding places additional stress on an already overburdened health care system, which will need to prepare for an increase in patients suffering from advanced liver disease," Ann Kwong, vice president and hepatitis C virus franchise lead at Vertex, said in a meeting news release. "It is critical to treat [hepatitis C] patients before they develop costly and irreversible liver complications."

Screening patients for hepatitis C infection can help doctors identify and potentially cure infection before liver complications occur. Available hepatitis C treatments are most effective in patients without advanced liver disease, so early diagnosis offers patients the best chance to be cured, Kwong said.

Up to 5 million U.S. adults have chronic hepatitis C, and as many as 75 percent of them don't know they have the infection. Chronic hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplant in the United States.

Last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all Americans born between 1945 and 1965 -- the baby boom generation -- be tested for hepatitis C.

Because this study was presented at a medical meeting, the data and conclusions should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about hepatitis C.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Digestive Disease Week, news release, May 22, 2012

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