The number of Pennsylvanians infected with acute hepatitis C more than doubled from 2009 to 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC report shows that after the infection rate leveled off for a few years, it jumped from 39 cases per every 100,000 Pennsylvanians in 2009 to 81 in 2013, the latest year data is available. That translates to about 10,000 Pennsylvanians currently living with the liver disease.
The same report shows that deaths associated with hepatitis C reached an all-time high of 19,659 in 2014, killing more Americans than any other infectious disease.
“Why are so many Americans dying of this preventable, curable disease?” asked Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. “Once hepatitis C testing and treatment are as routine as they are for high cholesterol and colon cancer, we will see people living the long, healthy lives they deserve.”
According to the CDC, people born between 1945 and 1965 account for 75 percent of the hepatitis C cases. Officials said that's likely due to the lack of safety standards and technology around injection and blood transfusions prior to 1992. Mermin said many of those Baby Boomers have been unknowingly living with, and possibly spreading, the virus for years.
The CDC estimates that 3.5 million Americans are living with the disease.
But the new data points to a wave of infections among people who inject drugs—particularly those who are young, white and living in suburban and rural areas. The Allegheny County Health Department began investigating risk factors for hepatitis in 2015, according to Dr. Kristen Mertz, a medical epidemiologist. She said most of those infected who were under 35 years old were injection drug users.
Mertz said testing for hepatitis C is a two-step process: first to determine if the person has the antibodies and then to see if they still have the virus. She said Baby Boomers and at-risk individuals should be tested, including intravenous drug users and, “people who received a blood transfusion before 1992, health care workers, emergency care workers who have had needle sticks, also children born to hepatitis C-positive women should be tested because there is some perinatal transmission of hepatitis C.”
The health department offers testing at its clinic in Oakland Monday through Friday for $25. But, according to Andrew Ptaschinksi at the Pittsburgh Aids Task Force, that organization is offering free testing at its East Liberty office six days a week.
Mertz added that if someone tests positive, that person should seek care even if he or she is not experiencing any symptoms.
“There are new treatments out now that have 95 percent cure rates, which was not true a couple of years ago,” Mertz said.