Hepatitis C is now the leading infectious disease killer in the United States, mostly among baby-boomers who were infected decades before the virus was discovered.
The number of deaths from hepatitis C hit an all-time high of 19,659 people in 2014 — more than 60 other infectious diseases combined, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
New cases of hepatitis C infection occurred mainly among young, white people who inject drugs and live in rural or suburban areas of the Midwest and Eastern U.S.
However, most deaths from hepatitis C were baby boomers — those born from 1945 to 1965 — who were infected during medical procedures after World War II. The virus was not discovered until 1989.
Of the 3.5 million people infected with hepatitis C, 75% are baby boomers. About half of them are unaware of the infection. Without treatment, they can spread the virus or develop life-threatening complications like liver cancer or cirrhosis (scarring).
Dr. John Ward, director of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, says 320,000 deaths could be prevented if all baby boomers got tested:
People often report general fatigue, feeling out of sorts, maybe feeling mild depression, feeling like your brain isn’t working that well. Often people think ‘I am just feeling older.’ The only way to know if you’re infected with hepatitis C is to get tested.”
The good news is we have a cure. Gilead Sciences’ Sovaldi and Harvoni cure 95% of patients in 12 weeks with very few side effects.
The bad news is the drugs are extremely expensive, costing upwards of $84,000 for treatment or $1,000 per pill. Insurers refuse to pay unless a patient is very sick, which can take decades with hepatitis C.
In the meantime, some patients have filed lawsuits. Others traveled to India, where the same pill is $10.
The rising cost of drugs has become a major issue for baby boomers, now in their most expensive healthcare years. In the last 5 years, the average cost of brand-name prescription drugs nearly doubled. Pharmaceutical companies are under fire for buying the rights to life-saving drugs and immediately jacking up the prices.
The pharmaceutical industry has opposed most proposals to bring down drug-costs, but one thing they support is a cap on out-of-pocket costs for consumers. Of course, this would put insurers on the hook for everything except a co-payment, which they oppose.