TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Hepatitis C is a curable disease, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said even with health coverage, fewer than one in three Americans are treated for it. The health agency said in the past few years, America has seen the high rates of new infections.

Hepatitis C can cause liver disease, liver cancer, and it can kill you. The CDC said it is curable with oral medication. Still, infections have risen among adults under 40, but that same age group has “the lowest treatment rates by age group.”

While medication is available, one in three Americans with health insurance are skipping direct antiviral treatments. When it comes to those on federal health insurance like Medicaid, even fewer are seeking treatment, with just 23% of patients on Medicaid getting medicine for the disease in the first year of diagnosis. However, there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, according to the CDC.

(Source: CDC)

“People shouldn’t have to jump over hurdles to access lifesaving, cost-effective treatment,” Carolyn Wester, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, said. “Removing barriers to treatment is a critical step, as is increasing screening for hepatitis C. We estimate about 40% of people with hepatitis C in the U.S. are unaware of their infection—testing is the first step to accessing curative treatment.”

The agency said there are more than 2 million Americans with hepatitis C in the U.S., and about 14,000 people die of the curable disease every year. Treatment involves taking an oral direct-acting antiviral or DAA, for eight to 12 weeks. The CDC said more than 95% of cases are cured through this method.

However, even when medical care is assured by health insurance, odds are that treatment isn’t coming, and isn’t asked for.

“The prevalence of DAA treatment initiation within 360 days of the first positive HCV RNA test result among Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance recipients was 23%, 28%, and 35%, respectively; among those treated, 75%, 77%, and 84%, respectively, initiated treatment within 180 days of diagnosis,” the CDC reported.

The data showed treatment among adults aged 18 to 29 was lowest. In states with Medicaid restrictions, the CDC said treatment rates were even lower.

The CDC said to ensure people diagnosed with hepatitis C are treated, healthcare providers, insurers, policy makers, and public health professionals should:

  • Remove eligibility restrictions and preauthorization requirements that make it difficult for people with hepatitis C to access treatment that will cure the infection.
  • Provide treatment where people already receive services, such as primary care offices, community clinics, syringe services programs, substance use treatment centers, and correctional facilities.
  • Provide treatment in as few visits as possible.
  • Expand the number of primary care providers treating hepatitis C.

Should the disease remain untreated, symptoms can expand. The CDC lists the following symptoms of hepatitis C, underscoring the need for treatment and management. When symptoms do appear, the CDC says “they often are a sign of advanced liver disease.”

  • Cirrhosis
  • Liver cancer
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Dark urine
  • Clay-colored stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice

The most common ways hepatitis C is transmitted, according to the CDC, are “injection-drug use” or being born to a mother already infected with HCV. While less frequent, the CDC said the disease can also be spread through sexual contact with someone who has HCV, sharing contaminated personal items like razors or toothbrushes, and unregulated tattooing.

According to the CDC, the following people are at increased risk for hepatitis C:

  • People with HIV infection
  • Current or former people who use injection drugs (PWID), including those who injected only once many years ago
  • People with selected medical conditions, including those who ever received maintenance hemodialysis (4,5)
  • Prior recipients of transfusions or organ transplants, including people who received clotting factor concentrates produced before 1987, people who received a transfusion of blood or blood components before July 1992, people who received an organ transplant before July 1992, and people who were notified that they received blood from a donor who later tested positive for HCV infection
  • Health care, emergency medical, and public safety personnel after needle sticks, sharps, or mucosal exposures to HCV-positive blood
  • Children born to mothers with HCV infection