Two promising new drugs released on the market last year have dramatically increased the cure rate for hepatitis C.
But treatment is costly, and not everyone who is diagnosed with the virus seeks treatment, said Dr. Deborah McMahan, commissioner for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.
Allen County had 374 confirmed cases of hepatitis C in 2010; 275 in 2011; and 220 so far this year.
There have been four deaths since January that were somehow related to hepatitis C, she said.
Those are the diagnosed cases. There are many more that are undiagnosed.
Who knows what the numbers really are? she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended screening for the disease, particularly among baby boomers and those at high risk for the disease, which has flu-like early symptoms.
One reason baby boomers are more at risk, McMahan said, is that they lived in the decades before health officials were able to identify blood products. Another reason may be that they lived in a freer society, and some may have experimented with risky behavior such as injecting drugs, she said.
The CDC has never before promoted a pre-emptive screening on such a broad scale, McMahan said.
And McMahan wonders what health departments and personnel will do with the results of the screenings.
Many agencies are already short-staffed with limited funding, and the results could create a need for further investigative costs, follow-up procedures, treatments and staffing, she said.
Still, those in high-risk groups and all baby boomers need to be tested because the newer treatments produce really good outcomes, she said.
Newly available therapies can cure up to 75 percent of infections, according to the CDC.
CDC officials said the expanded testing – and linking it with appropriate care and treatment – would prevent the costly consequences of liver cancer and other chronic liver diseases and save more than 120,000 lives.
Using the CDC’s rate of prevalence of hepatitis C among baby boomers, 2,900 people in Allen County are expected to have been infected, according to McMahan.
The CDC estimates that 80 percent of those infected become chronically ill with liver disease or dysfunction. That means 2,400 people could have a serious liver condition, she said.
It’s not an insignificant number, McMahan said.