Hepatitis C cases decreased in the United States. Health officials aren’t sure if this is a blip or a trend. | Trending Viral hub

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NEW YORK — New hepatitis C infections in the United States fell slightly in 2022, a striking improvement after more than a decade of steady increases, federal health officials said Wednesday.

Experts are unsure whether the 6% drop is a statistical blip or the start of a downward trend. Looking at data from 2023 and 2024, when available, will help public health officials understand what’s happening, said Daniel Raymond, policy director for the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, an advocacy organization.

“We’ve had a decade of bad news… I’m cautiously encouraged,” he said. “You always want to hope that something like this is real and a potential sign that the tide has turned.”

Infection rates did not occur across the board. They decreased among white Americans, but continued to increase in black, Latino and Native American communities, according to Dr. Neil Gupta, who oversees the branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that tracks viral hepatitis.

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through contact with the blood of an infected person. The virus causes most of its damage by infecting the liver and, if left untreated, can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Infections are mainly caused by people who inject illicit drugs.

Data released by the CDC for 2022 shows 4,848 new infections, up from 5,023 reported the previous year. The CDC estimates that there were about 67,000 new hepatitis C infections in 2022, because many people who become infected do not realize it, meaning that most new infections go undiagnosed and unreported. But that figure is also lower than the 70,000 estimated for 2021.

The new infection rate, used to better compare data from year to year, fell 6%. Although the decline is encouraging, Gupta said, the 2022 statistics are still double what the nation saw in 2015.

Cases had been rising steadily since 2013 during the long-running opioid epidemic as drug users injected heroin and fentanyl. Experts say a couple of factors could have contributed to a decline in 2022, including successful prevention efforts and needle exchanges.

The North American Syringe Exchange Network maintains a directory of American programs and listings have grown from about 300 to nearly 500 in recent years, said Paul LaKosky, executive director of NASEN. Many programs have also boosted hepatitis C testing and found ways to get infected people into treatment, he noted.

But LaKosky and others believe there may also be something else at play: Drug users are switching from injecting to smoking. A recent CDC report found that between early 2020 and late 2022, the percentage of overdose deaths with evidence of smoking increased by 74%, while the percentage of deaths with evidence of injection fell by 29%.

Fewer people injecting drugs like fentanyl means fewer opportunities for hepatitis C to spread, experts said.

“There has been a tremendous change in the way people use their drugs. There has been a decrease in demand for syringes. We’ve seen this all over the country,” said LaKosky, who added that there is more demand for supplies for snorting or smoking drugs.

More than 2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C and some of them have lived with infections for many years, the CDC estimates. About 12,700 Americans died in 2022 from hepatitis C-related causes, the CDC said.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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