U.S. health officials said new cases of hepatitis C rose nearly 300 percent from 2010 to 2015, despite the availability of cures for the liver disease, fueled by a spike in the use of heroin and other injection drugs, according to a report released on Thursday.
In 2015, the national reported rate of hepatitis C was 0.8 per 100,000 persons with nearly 34,000 new infections, according to the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Access to clean syringes and a limit on Medicaid barriers to curative treatments for hepatitis C can reduce rates of death from the disease and transmission of the virus to others, the CDC said.
New treatments for hepatitis C with a cure rate of over 95 percent from Gilead Sciences (GILD.O), AbbVie (ABBV.N) and other drugmakers have the ability to virtually wipe out the disease, which can lead to cirrhosis, cancer, the need for a liver transplant or death.
But the opioid addiction epidemic appears to be creating tens of thousands of new cases, with unclean needles the leading cause of infections. Some experts say that one reason heroin use has soared is because the illegal drug has become much cheaper than prescription opioid painkillers and due to new limits on dispensing of the addictive legal pain medicines.
The CDC conducted a state-by-state analysis of reported cases of the hepatitis C virus (HCV), as well as a review of laws related to access to clean needles for individuals who inject drugs, and levels of restriction on Medicaid access to treatments.
In 2015, it found HCV rates in 17 states exceeded the national average.
The analysis found only Massachusetts, New Mexico and Washington had both a comprehensive set of laws and a permissive Medicaid treatment policy that could help prevent the spread of HCV and provide treatment services for those who inject drugs.
Twenty-four states had policies that require some period of sobriety to receive HCV treatment through Medicaid, potentially limiting access to cures, compared with 16 states without such restrictions.
Among the best ways of preventing spread of the virus are public health laws that allow access to clean syringes for drug users, such as needle exchange programs, decriminalization of the possession of syringes, and allowing the retail sale of syringes without a prescription.
Eighteen states had no such programs, the report found, while Maine, Nevada and Utah had the most comprehensive laws related to prevention, including syringe exchange without limitations.
(Reporting by Bill Berkrot; Editing by Leslie Adler)