New report halves the number of people infected with hepatitis C worldwide

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By Jon Cohen

A new World Health Organization (WHO) report chops the estimated number of people around the world living with the liver-damaging hepatitis C virus (HCV) in half—but the drop has nothing to do with the recent advent of powerful drugs that cure the disease for most everyone.

WHO’s Global Hepatitis Report estimates that 71 million people in 2015 were living with HCV, down from an earlier estimate of 130 million to 150 million. As the report explains, the dramatic drop occurred primarily because of tests that measured HCV’s genetic material, RNA, in people. Previous epidemiological surveys tested whether people had antibodies against the virus, which is less precise.

The report estimates that 257 million people are infected with hepatitis B virus (HBV), a number very close to previous estimates. Although HBV and HCV are unrelated, they both persist for decades, often without a person’s knowledge, and both can ultimately cause cirrhosis or liver cancer. Together, the viruses killed 1.34 million people in 2015, which the report notes is comparable to deaths from tuberculosis and higher than those from HIV/AIDS. 

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