Millions of hepatitis C cases and related deaths could be prevented, but it will require a significant investment, researchers say.
In the first study to model such measures worldwide, the authors concluded that sweeping prevention, screening and treatment efforts could prevent 15.1 million new hepatitis C infections and 1.5 million cirrhosis and liver cancer deaths by 2030.
Compared to 2015, that would be an 80 percent drop in hepatitis C cases and a 60 percent reduction in deaths, according to the study published Jan. 28 in The Lancet journal.
The reductions in new cases would meet the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2030 target, but fall just short of its aim to reduce hepatitis C deaths by 65 percent. The new study said that goal could be achieved by 2032.
"Even though it narrowly falls short of the WHO targets for 2030, the impact our estimates suggest would be a tremendous stride forwards," research leader Alastair Heffernan said in a journal news release. Heffernan is a professor at Imperial College London.
Eliminating the hepatitis C virus will require stepped-up prevention and screening, especially in countries such as China, India and Pakistan, he said.
"Across the globe, these options are currently well below the levels we estimate are needed to have a major impact on the epidemic," Heffernan said. "Research into how to improve this in all settings, as well as increased funding, will be needed if we are to reach these targets."
Worldwide, about 71 million people have chronic hepatitis C infection. Between 10 percent and 20 percent are expected to develop liver complications such as cirrhosis and cancer, which caused more than 475,000 deaths in 2015.
The most common causes of hepatitis C infection are blood transfusions, unsafe healthcare-related injections, and injection drug use.
Direct-acting antivirals that became available a few years ago provide much better cure rates along with fewer side effects and shorter treatment. The authors said that means more patients can successfully complete treatment.
Dr. Stefan Wiktor, an acting professor of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote an accompanying editorial. It said the needed expansion of hepatitis services would require political will and substantial investment.
"WHO estimated that implementing its strategy would cost US $ 11.9 billion for the period 2016-21," he said. "Identifying these resources will be particularly difficult at a time of reduced investment in global health and a shift in focus toward universal health coverage rather than disease-specific programs."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on hepatitis C.