(Newsroom America) -- Over just five years, the number of new hepatitis C virus infections reported to CDC has nearly tripled, reaching a 15-year high, according to new preliminary surveillance data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Because hepatitis C has few symptoms, nearly half of people living with the virus don't know they are infected and most new infections go undiagnosed. Further, limited surveillance resources have led to underreporting, meaning the annual number of hepatitis C virus cases reported to CDC (850 cases in 2010 and 2,436 cases in 2015) does not reflect the true scale of the epidemic. CDC estimates about 34,000 new hepatitis C infections actually occurred in the U.S. in 2015.
Hepatitis C kills more Americans than any other infectious disease reported to CDC. The data released today indicate that nearly 20,000 Americans died from hepatitis C-related causes in 2015, and the majority of deaths were people ages 55 and older.
"By testing, curing, and preventing hepatitis C, we can protect generations of Americans from needless suffering and death," said Jonathan Mermin, M.D., director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.
"We must reach the hardest-hit communities with a range of prevention and treatment services that can diagnose people with hepatitis C and link them to treatment. This wide range of services can also prevent the misuse of prescription drugs and ultimately stop drug use – which can also prevent others from getting hepatitis C in the first place."
Hepatitis C spreading rapidly in new generations, but boomers bear biggest burden
New hepatitis C virus infections are increasing most rapidly among young people, with the highest overall number of new infections among 20- to 29-year-olds. This is primarily a result of increasing injection drug use associated with America's growing opioid epidemic.
However, the majority (three-quarters) of the 3.5 million Americans already living with hepatitis C are baby boomers born from 1945 to 1965. Baby boomers are six times more likely to be infected with hepatitis C than those in other age groups and are at much greater risk of death from the virus.
While surveillance data do not accurately capture hepatitis C infection rates among infants, other recent CDC studies indicate that hepatitis C virus infections are growing among women of childbearing age – putting the youngest generation of Americans at risk. Hepatitis C treatment not only cures the vast majority of people living with the virus, but also prevents transmission to their partners and children.