October 7, 2013 – The Health Department today released the City’s first-ever plan for reducing illness and death from the hepatitis C virus (HCV), a disease that now accounts for more annual deaths nationwide than HIV/AIDS. In Hepatitis C in New York City: State of the Epidemic and Action Plan, the Health Department calls for new efforts to expand testing for HCV and to ensure that all people with HCV infection are evaluated for treatment.
“This is a very hopeful time for persons living with hepatitis C,” Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley noted today. “After many years in which the infection was very difficult to treat, hepatitis C can now be cured. We also expect that medications that are easier to use and even more effective will be available in just a few months, and many other promising drugs should be approved for use in the next few years.”
The Health Department estimates that approximately 146,500 New Yorkers are infected with HCV, which is usually transmitted when contaminated blood from one person enters another’s bloodstream. Many live in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and other indices of underlying health disparities, including the South Bronx and East and Central Harlem, and only 40 percent of New Yorkers with HCV have been evaluated by a doctor for possible treatment. Most people living with HCV have few symptoms of illness until 10 to 30 years after initial infection, when life-threatening complications can develop. People with HCV are at risk for developing cirrhosis, liver cancer, and other types of liver damage. Tens of thousands of New York City residents — infected in the 1970s and 1980s — may discover that they have advanced liver disease without ever knowing that they have HCV.
The anticipated wave of HCV-related illness, leading to billions of dollars in health care costs and lost productivity, can be blunted with a concerted public health campaign that takes advantage of new tests and medications.
“Unfortunately, roughly half of those living with HCV infection do not know that they are infected,” Farley added. “With new opportunities to treat and cure this disease, all health care providers in New York City must become familiar with current recommendations for testing and treatment.”
The Health Department’s action plan identifies seven public health objectives to address the HCV epidemic in New York City, including:
- Enhancing public awareness of HCV;
- Enhancing health provider awareness regarding screening, diagnosis, and referral for HCV infection and clinical providers’ capacity to manage and treat HCV;
- Enhancing linkage to care for persons with current HCV infection, identifying and promoting successful models of care, and building clinical capacity to manage and treat HCV;
- Promoting HCV testing;
- Enhancing HCV surveillance activities to strengthen the Health Department’s capacity to manage and utilize data for evidence-based policies and practice;
- Promoting primary prevention; and
- Collaborating with other organizations to develop, promote and advance policies that will support the goals of this strategy.
Hepatitis C in New York City: State of the Epidemic and Action Plan (PDF)
About Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C (HCV) is a liver disease that results from infection with the HCV virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness. HCV is usually spread when blood from a person infected with HCV enters the body of someone who is not infected. Today, most people become infected with HCV by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Before 1992, when widespread screening of the blood supply began in the United States, HCV was also commonly spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants.
HCV can be either “acute” or “chronic.” Acute HCV infection is a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to HCV. For most, but not all, people, acute infection leads to chronic infection. When people live with chronic infection for many years, the virus can damage the liver and interfere with its important functions. Eventually, this can lead to severe liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. If people with chronic HCV infection are treated effectively before this damage occurs, the virus can be eliminated, liver function can improve, and the risk from severe liver disease and liver cancer can be greatly reduced.
There is no vaccine for HCV. The best way to prevent HCV is by avoiding behaviors that can spread the disease, such as injection drug use.