Lung cancer remained the top killer of Iowans in the report just released by the State Health Registry, but researchers say they are concerned about the growing number of cases of liver cancer. “The rate of new cases in Iowa has roughly tripled from 1975 to 2014. A similar trend has been seen in other registries across in the United States,” according to Doctor Mary Charlton. “Among Iowans, liver cancer is the 13th leading cause of cancer deaths among men and women combined. Chronic infections with hepatitis C or hepatitis B are the major risk factors for liver cancer.”
Charlton is assistant professor of epidemiology at the U-I College of Public Health where the State Health Registry is based. She says Baby Boomers are seeing big increases in cases of liver cancer. “This is because the hepatitis C infection was the most common in the 1960s to the 1980s before this virus was discovered and preventive measures — including the screening of the blood supply — became possible. It is estimated that the Baby Boomers are five times more likely to have hepatitis C compared to other groups,” Charlton explains.
Doctor Michael Voigt is a clinical professor of internal medicine at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics says the Iowa Department of Public Health reported a little more than 21-thousand cases of hepatitis C as of March of last year. He says that indicates there are thousands more Iowans who are undiagnosed and could be at risk for liver cancer. He says based on those numbers there’s likely to be between 35-thousand and 130-thousand people who are infected with hepatitis C and as many as 110-thousand are undiagnosed.
Voigt says the disease often goes undetected unless you get tested. “One point to make is that hepatitis C is systematically downplayed within the media and within people’s consciousness,” Voigt says. “And I personally believe the reason for that is because it is a silent and slow killer. Because something takes a long time to develop, people kind of just put it aside or ignore it.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 be tested for hepatitis C. Voigt says there are very effective treatments. “We expect an almost 100 percent cure rate for hepatitis C. As far as hepatitis B is concerned, that is absolutely preventable as well,”Voigt says. “The point being — that we have the ability to take the measures to prevent liver cancer in the future an all these other complications for these diseases.”
Voigt says the State of Iowa severely restricts they payment for treatment of hepatitis C with 90 percent of Medicaid requests for payment refused. “I think that this epidemic that we’re seeing — this increasing rate of hepatitis C and B related disease is preventable — but we have to have the will to do this and actually find the wherewithal to actually get these people treated,” Voigt says.
Voigt says it’s not just an issue for Baby Boomers as hepatitis C cases are also increasing dramatically among Iowans between the ages of 18 and 30. The Iowa Cancer report was released last Wednesday.