WHO Report Slashes Number of Worldwide Hepatitis C Cases

Estimates of patients with HCV dropped from 130 million to 71 million.

The estimated number of individuals living with hepatitis C virus (HCV) worldwide has been slashed in half in a new World Health Organization (WHO) report. Most surprisingly, the drop appears to have little to do with the release of the lifesaving HCV drugs.

The 2017 Global Hepatitis Report, revealed for the first time the global and regional estimates on viral HCV in 2015. The report primarily focuses on hepatitis B virus (HBV) and HCV, which account for 96% of hepatitis deaths.

In 2015, an estimated 71 million individuals had HCV. This was a drop from earlier estimates of 130 million to 150 million. This dramatic decrease was largely due to tests that measure patients’ RNA rather than seroprevalence, which is less precise.

Hepatitis specialist Graham Cooke recently conducted a meta-analysis of studies conducted in sub-Saharan Africa. The results of the analysis showed that only 51% of patients diagnosed as positive from antibody tests had evidence of viral RNA.

Cooke said the inaccuracy is because patients can spontaneously clear the virus, while the antibodies will stick around. Furthermore, in the past the antibody test was often imprecise.

“We’re at a moment where we’re pivoting form describing to doing,” Cooke told Science Magazine. “When you’re describing you do seroprevalence. But you don’t need to cure everyone who has antibody.”

Diagnostics that detect antibodies are relatively simpler than those that measure the virus, which lack in availability in countries with the highest infection rates.

“The current situation is there may be more of an issue in terms of diagnostic tests than in terms of treatment,” Yvan Hutin, WHO hepatologist, told Science Magazine.

The WHO estimates 1.75 million people became infected with HCV in 2015, but estimates for the number of new HBV infections were not reported. However, the global new infection rate of HBV in children under 5 years decreased from 4.7% before a vaccine was widely used to 1.3% in 2015.

Estimates for individuals already infected with HBV were approximately 257 million, similar to prior estimates. Overall, HBV and HCV were responsible for 1.34 million deaths in 2015, a number that’s comparable to deaths from tuberculosis and higher than from HIV/AIDS.