IDWeek 2015: Hepatitis C Mortality Continues to Increase in the U.S.

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Deaths related to hepatitis C virus (HCV) continue to rise in the U.S. despite the advent of highly effective interferon-free therapy, according to a CDC study presented yesterday at IDWeek 2015 in San Diego. While death certificate data indicate that hepatitis C is the most common infectious disease cause of death -- exceeding HIV, hepatitis B, and tuberculosis combined -- HCV-related mortality is likely underestimated.

National estimates indicate that between 3 and 4 million people in the U.S. are infected with HCV. Historically, most have been in the age cohort born between 1945 and 1965, but recent outbreaks among young people who inject drugs may shift this distribution.

Over years or decades chronic HCV infection can lead to severe liver disease including cirrhosis, liver cancer, and end-stage liver failure, and hepatitis C is a leading indication for liver transplantation. Mortality due to hepatitis C has risen over the past decade while deaths due to HIV have fallen and hepatitis B mortality remains low and stable. Experts estimate that only about half of people living with HCV have been diagnosed, and many do not become aware they are infected until they develop advanced disease.

The development of direct-acting antiviral agents that can cure more than 90% of people with hepatitis C in 3 months or less without interferon has revolutionized treatment, but inadequate screening and the high cost of the new medications means most people are not yet benefiting from these advances.

Scott Holmberg from the Division of Viral Hepatitis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and colleagues aimed to learn more about trends in hepatitis C mortality.

The researchers examined national multiple-cause-of-death (MCOD) records of all U.S. death certificates from 2003 through 2013. They looked at ICD-10 diagnostic codes for hepatitis C and 60 other infectious diseases that are nationally reportable to the CDC. Deaths that had HCV and other infections listed as "underlying conditions" were divided by the U.S. census population for each year.

The analysis also looked at mortality rates among more than 12,000 people in the Chronic Hepatitis Cohort Study (CHeCS) between 2007 and 2013. Unlike the larger national population, people in the CHeCS cohort were presumed to have adequate access to evolving hepatitis C care and treatment. To get a better idea of "hidden mortality," the researchers also looked more closely at 1600 deaths of well-characterized CHeCS patients during 2006-2010.

Results

"Deaths in chronic HCV-infected persons, even when grossly under-enumerated on death certificates, far outstrip deaths from 60 other infectious conditions reportable to CDC," the researchers concluded. "Control of the 'chronic' and the 'acute' outbreaks will require a multipronged approach, with interventions along a testing-to-cure continuum of care."

As Holmberg and colleagues reported in 2013, the hepatitis C cascade of care indicates that of the 3.2 million people estimated to be living with HCV in the U.S., 50% have been gotten HCV antibody tests, 38% have received hepatitis C care, 23% have gotten HCV RNA tests (to diagnose active disease), 11% have received treatment, and only 6% have achieved sustained virological response, considered to be a cure.

Antiviral therapy that cures hepatitis C can halt and even reverse liver disease progression, so expanded treatment should have an effect on mortality in the years to come.

Data from Gilead Sciences -- which produces the best-selling interferon-free therapies sofosbuvir (Sovaldi) and sofosbuvir/ledipasvir (Harvoni) -- show that prescriptions for sofosbuvir-based regimens reached 470,000 in the second quarter of 2015, with more than half (about 270,000) in the U.S., just under 100,000 in Europe, and just over 100,000 in developing countries.

Yet while the number of people receiving hepatitis C therapy is rising, there remain barriers to universal treatment. Due to the high cost of the new drugs some private insurers and public payers including state Medicaid programs are restricting access, for example by requiring that patients have advanced fibrosis, undergo a pre-treatment liver biopsy or FibroScan, abstain from alcohol and drugs for 6 months, or be treated by specific specialists.

Beyond the cost of the drugs, other barriers include clinicians thinking hepatitis C is a benign chronic condition that doesn't require treatment, patient issues such as having other priorities, public "fatigue" about infectious disease outbreaks and a reluctance to help injection drug users, and absence of a strong advocacy group.

Holmberg ended with a personal appeal to members of the Infectious Diseases Society of America -- one of the professional organizations that sponsors IDWeek -- to expand their knowledge about and treatment of this largest U.S. infectious disease epidemic.

10/11/15

Reference

SD Holmberg, KNLy, J Xing, and AC Moorman. Continued Rising Mortality from Hepatitis C Virus in the United States, 2003-2013. IDWeek 2015. San Diego, October 7-11, 2015. Abstract 1972.