NEW YORK (NEWSnet/AP) — New U.S. hepatitis C infections dropped slightly in 2022, an improvement after more than a decade of steady increases, federal health officials said Wednesday.

Experts are not sure whether the 6% decline is a statistical blip or the start of a downward trend. 

The hepatitis C virus is spread through contact with blood from an infected person. The virus does most of its damage by infecting the liver, and, if left untreated, can lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer. Infections are driven mainly by people injecting illicit drugs.

Data released by the CDC for 2022 shows 4,848 new infections, down from 5,023 reported the year before. The CDC estimates about 67,000 new hepatitis C infections actually occurred in 2022, because many people who become infected don’t realize it, meaning most new infections are not diagnosed and reported. But that too is down, from 70,000 estimated for 2021.

Cases had consistently gone up since 2013 during the longstanding opioid epidemic due to drug users shooting heroin and fentanyl. Experts say a couple of factors could have contributed to a decline in 2022, including successful prevention efforts and needle exchanges.

More than 2 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, some of them having lived with infections for many years, the CDC estimates. About 12,700 Americans died in 2022 of hepatitis C-related causes, the CDC said.

Experts say seeing 2023 and 2024 data, when it’s available, will help public health officials gain a better understanding of the increase or decrease in cases.

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