By Robert Preidt
WEDNESDAY, Nov. 1, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Only about half of people in the United States with hepatitis C know they have the curable disease, new data shows.
That lack of awareness contributes to increasing rates of hepatitis C infection and means the country is unlikely to meet its own or World Health Organization target dates for eliminating the disease, researchers said.
Hepatitis C can cause liver disease, cirrhosis and liver cancer and led to about 23,000 deaths in the United States in 2016 -- a toll that's rising every year, according to the data gathered by researchers with the Polaris Observatory and the Center for Disease Analysis Foundation in Colorado.
Currently, the number of hepatitis C deaths in the United States each year is greater than the number of HIV-related deaths. Since 2012, hepatitis C deaths have outnumbered deaths from all other reportable infectious diseases combined, the researchers said.
They found that, of an estimated 2.7 million people in the United States with hepatitis C, just 55 percent know they are infected, largely because the disease is mostly symptomless and there is a lack of routine screening.
As a result, many people with hepatitis C don't receive highly effective cures that can eliminate the virus and prevent liver disease, cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The data was released Tuesday at the World Hepatitis Summit in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"The fact is that even when people are diagnosed, they are not being referred and often don't get treated," researcher Homie Razavi said in a news release about the summit.
"There are many possible reasons for patients not accessing treatment," he said. They include the fact that in two-thirds of U.S. states, Medicaid treatment is restricted to people with advanced disease, preventing access to treatment for those who don't have private insurance.
Among the other factors: Some patients and doctors may not consider treatment a priority because of a lack of symptoms and disease progression, some people may not be aware of available treatments, and some may be "lost" in the health care system, the researchers said.
Risk factors for hepatitis C infection include injection drug use, medical or dental procedures abroad, unsterile tattoos and piercings and blood transfusions received before 1992, when all blood donated in the United States started being screened for hepatitis C.
"We have the tools to eliminate hepatitis C in the U.S.," said Michael Ninburg, president-elect of the World Hepatitis Alliance. "We have effective cures for hepatitis C, and also effective vaccination to prevent hepatitis B."
"Now, we just have to make ending hepatitis a political priority and prevent hundreds of thousands of needlessly premature deaths," he added.
Research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.