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Could Hepatitis C Become Rare Disease in 20 Years?

Newer medications, better screening would fuel the trend, researcher says
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Besides the treatment advances, more hepatitis C cases could be caught. Since 2012, U.S. health officials have recommended that all "baby boomers" -- Americans born between 1945 and 1965 -- get a one-time blood test to screen for hepatitis C.

Baby boomers are targeted because they account for about 80 percent of chronic hepatitis C cases, Chhatwal said.

That's partly because of experimentation with injection drugs decades ago, and partly from exposure to contaminated blood before widespread screening of the blood supply in 1992.

For the new study, which was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Chhatwal's team used a computer model to estimate the future effects of both hepatitis C screening and new drug regimens.

The researchers predict that within the next 22 years, hepatitis C could become rare. What's more, nearly 79,000 cases of liver cancer, over 124,000 cases of cirrhosis and 126,500 deaths could be averted by 2050.

"Those are certainly reasonable predictions. I don't think they're overstating the situation at all," said Dr. Eugene Schiff, director of the Schiff Center for Liver Diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Schiff, who was not involved in the study, explained that traditionally people with hepatitis C have not been automatically treated, because the drugs were so hard to take and not very effective.

"Now we're moving toward an era of 'test and treat,'" Schiff said. "Cure rates are approaching 100 percent with these new regimens, and they're very well-tolerated."

Treatment could also get even easier, Schiff noted. Gilead Sciences, maker of Sovaldi, has another pill in the pipeline. It combines Sovaldi and another drug, called ledipasvir, into a once-daily tablet that can be taken for as few as eight weeks.

The FDA is expected to make a decision on that drug in October, Schiff said.

The obstacle in all of this is money. Sovaldi costs $1,000 a day, or $84,000 for the typical 12-week course. Some insurers and state Medicaid programs are restricting coverage to certain patients, saying the drug's huge price tag could break the bank.

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