"While this study focuses on pregnant women and a high-risk area in Tennessee, it is also important to remember that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the USA have hepatitis C, and a large percentage of them do not know it", says Tim Jones, M.D., epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, in the statement.
A report released from the CDC Thursday shows hepatitis c infections have tripled in the last five years. But officials at the CDC think the reported infections are only a fraction of the actual number.
Hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease reported by the CDC with an estimated 20,000 deaths in 2015. The health agency estimates new infections for 2015 at 34,000. The infection often produces no symptoms in its early stages, though it can lead to liver failure if left untreated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages needle exchanges as a way to prevent drug addicts from spreading disease. The effort is in response to a hepatitis C outbreak among IV drug users. West Virginia was charted with the highest infection rate in 2014 at 22.6 per 1,000 live births.
Hepatitis C is one of the leading infectious disease killers. Compared to hepatitis A and hepatitis B, HCV does not have preventative vaccines. They are six times more likely to be infected than people in other age groups and have a much higher risk of death from the virus, the CDC said.
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"By testing, curing, and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death", said the CDC's Dr. Jonathan Mermin.
While grim news from a public health standpoint, the rising number of infections is an opportunity for drugmakers including Gilead Sciences Inc. He added that it's also imperative to follow infants exposed to hepatitis C in the womb in case they develop the virus. Only three of them pursue policies to prevent and treat the disease, such as needle sharing programs and rules allowing medical treatment even after a failed drug test. About 3.5 million people, mostly over 55, are infected.
The disease might have infected thousands of county residents who use heroin and other injectable drugs, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
He also said that it is increasingly important that infants exposed to hepatitis C are monitored to see if they get the virus.
Currently there are a number of FDA-approved regimens "and the beauty is that these regimens are now virtually uniformly successful" in bringing about a cure of the infection, said Chung.
It is hepatitis awareness month, with May 19 as the national testing day in the country.