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Hepatitis C Rates Spike Among Pregnant Women

New data show a startling trend: Rates of hepatitis C among pregnant women have significantly increased.  

Of note, rates among pregnant women who are addicted to opioids jumped by nearly 150%.  An analysis of hospital discharge data from 2000 to 2015, published earlier this month in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, shared these staggering figures.

Hepatitis C, a chronic liver disease, can lead to decreased liver function, liver cancer, even death.  It was once thought of as a disease of the baby boomer generation, but hepatitis C is making a resurgence.  Health officials have voiced concerns about the disease’s comeback among younger generations, but especially among pregnant women.  They can transmit the disease to their babies. And data show they are.  

In fact, 217 out of every 1,000 babies had hepatitis C at birth as of 2015.  Yet new infections among babies can be prevented – by curing infected women before they get pregnant.  

Several years ago, a novel treatment called “direct-acting antivirals” was introduced.  The curative medicine has the potential to make hepatitis C a disease of the past. But patients must get screened and have access to treatment if they test positive – without having to endure a gauntlet of obstacles.  Notably, women of child-bearing age need the curative medication before they get pregnant, as it’s not approved for use in pregnant women.

While some insurance companies and state Medicaid programs have loosened their restrictive coverage policies on who qualifies for the medication, not all have.  Across the country, some plans still require patients to pass a drug screening or sobriety test before authorizing their prescription.  Such a restrictive approach is harmful, discriminating by some standards, for patients struggling with an addiction to opioids. They need the curative treatment for their own health and also to break the chain of transmission to others.  Other states limit access to only patients in advanced stages of the disease.

Limiting access to hepatitis C cures has downstream ramifications, especially for women of child-bearing age.  There is no approved hepatitis C treatment for newborns, so their only hope is to avoid contracting the virus. In other words, if policymakers want to stop the rise of hepatitis C among pregnant women, they might begin by broadening access to curative treatment.