MONDAY, Feb. 20 (HealthDay News) -- Deaths from hepatitis C have increased steadily in the United States in recent years, in part because many people don't know they have disease, a new government report says.
More Americans now die of hepatitis C than from HIV, the AIDS-causing virus, according to 1999-2007 data reviewed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And most of those dying are middle-aged.
"These data underscore the urgent need to address the health threat posed by chronic hepatitis B and C in the United States," said investigator Dr. Scott Holmberg, chief of the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch in CDC's Division of Viral Hepatitis.
About 3.2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, a major cause of liver cancer and cirrhosis, the CDC authors said. An estimated one-half to three-quarters of infected adults are unaware they have the disease, which progresses slowly.
Hepatitis C is spread through injection drug use, from blood transfusions received before routine blood-screening began in 1992, and through sexual contact. In some cases, it passes from mothers to infants.
"Chronic hepatitis is a leading and preventable cause of premature death in the United States," Holmberg said. "Over time, leaving viral hepatitis untreated can lead to costly care and treatments, and lifetime costs can total hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, early detection and intervention can be cost-effective and save lives."
The new study highlights the need to increase hepatitis awareness and the critical importance of testing, Holmberg said. Screening will increase diagnoses and treatment, thereby reducing hepatitis-related deaths, he said.
The report is published in the Feb. 21 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Using death records from 1999 to 2007, researchers collected data on some 22 million American
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