There are few indirect data suggesting a rise in the burden of illness in HCV and the relative contribution of cirrhosis in this rise. Using the U.S. Census and cause of death data, Wise et al reported that age adjusted HCV-related mortality rates increased from 1995 to 2002 but reached a plateau since 2002.12
Results from mathematical models projected an increase in the proportion of HCV patients with cirrhosis to ~16% in 2000 and 25% in 2010, with an accompanying increase in decompensation, liver cancer, and liver-related deaths.11
Our data are the first to provide direct and contemporary estimates of the time trends in the burden of cirrhosis from the largest assembled group for HCV patients anywhere in the world.
Our study has two major findings.
First, there was striking increase in the burden of cirrhosis, hepatic decompensation, and HCC in the VA HCV cohort over the past decade. We found that the prevalence of cirrhosis and hepatic decompensation doubled, whereas the prevalence of HCC increased 19-fold between 1996 and 2006. Thus, one of five patients with HCV had cirrhosis and one of 100 patients with HCV had HCC in 2006 calendar year. Our results show that aging of the VA HCV-infected patients explains a significant proportion of the rising trend (20% and 47%) in the prevalence of cirrhosis and HCC, respectively with time. However, even after adjusting for aging, the time trends remained significantly upward, suggesting that other “unmeasured” factors that are in turn associated with the passage of time (such as duration of HCV infection) have a role in explaining the rising burden of cirrhosis and its related complications in HCV. We also found an increase in the proportion of cirrhosis patients who died each year, with annual mortality rates reaching 7% in 2006. Overall, 23294, 13724, and 1619 patients with HCV who sought care at the VA had either a diagnosis of cirrhosis, hepatic decompensation, or HCC in 2006 versus 2061, 1012, or 17 patients, respectively in 1996.
Second, we found that the rise in the burden of HCC was significantly greater than predicted by previous mathematical models. Specifically, we found that although only 0.26% of the HCV patients had HCC in 2000––an estimate very similar to that reported in the previous mathematical models this––proportion increased significantly to 1.3% in 2006––an estimate that is remarkably higher than some have previously projected (e.g.,
0.39% by Davis et al).11
It is plausible that transferring care to the VA after development of HCC might have contributed to the its prevalence, but we found that most of the HCC patients were diagnosed after being in the VA for several years, suggesting that care transfer plays a relatively small role Another explanation is that our patient population may be at a higher risk for progression to cirrhosis and HCC than non-veterans HCV patients because of the high prevalence of several comorbid conditions (such as alcohol use) in our cohort (). It is also possible that veterans with HCV acquired their infection earlier than non-veteran HCV patients, and thus would have had their infection for a longer time period compared with non-veterans. If true, then it would mean that the HCC prevalence curve in the general (or non-veteran) population with HCV is lagging behind that of HCV infected veterans, and that there might be a greater epidemic of HCC than we were expecting. Last, it is also possible that data from previous studies may be an underestimate. In fact, data from recalibrated mathematical models suggest that the projected prevalence of HCC may indeed be higher than previously reported.30
These new and concurrent estimates, therefore, provide convergent validity to our report. In contrast to the higher than expected prevalence of HCC, we found that the prevalence of cirrhosis to be somewhat lower than previously predicted. Based on previous data, this disconnect is likely related to under-diagnosis of early stage cirrhosis, possibly due to low rates of biopsy in the VA.2,31
Thus the prevalence of histological cirrhosis may indeed be significantly higher than seen in our analysis.
The morbidity and mortality associated with cirrhosis and HCC may be greatly reduced if potentially life saving interventions––such as liver transplantation and, for HCC, local ablation and surgical resection––are applied in a timely manner. However, liver transplantation is a resource intensive and scarce treatment modality, and only a few patients with HCC are eligible for potentially curative therapy due to advanced stage of HCC at diagnosis. Moreover, recent data show deficits in the care provided to patients with cirrhosis. For example, Julapalli et al found that only 20% of patients with cirrhosis who satisfied AASLD guidelines for referral had a mention of liver transplantation in their medical charts.32
Wilbur et al found that 94% of patients with variceal bleeding had not received any primary prophylaxis, and Singh et al found that follow-up endoscopy for secondary prophylaxis was arranged for only 65% of patients after the initial bleeding episode.33,34
In our previous studies, we found that less than one-third of patients who were diagnosed with HCC received screening before their diagnosis.35
In addition, we have also found that quality of health care given to patients with HCV infection falls far short of that recommended by practice guidelines.36
These deficits in HCV care in general and cirrhosis care in particular combined with the relative scarcity of available treatment modalities for cirrhosis further limit the effectiveness of these treatments in clinical care. Given the significant increase in the number of patients with cirrhosis, and given the data suggesting marked gaps in the quality of care, the healthcare system may need to re-channel its efforts in patients with HCV to provide timely and effective care to the patients with cirrhosis.
Our study has several strengths including the long period of follow up, use of previously validated definitions of cirrhosis and HCC, and examination of demographic and clinical variables that may impact burden of cirrhosis in HCV. Moreover, most of the HCV patients in the VA are diagnosed as a result of a system wide screening program, rather than after development of complications from liver disease. Presence of this unique screening mechanism makes our sample a relatively unbiased cohort. Availability of laboratory results data allowed us to identify a cohort of patients with chronic HCV infection. To achieve high accuracy of case definitions, we excluded patients without documented viremia from our denominator and therefore the absolute number of patients with cirrhosis might be even higher than reported. However, prevalence estimates are less likely to be affected.
Our study is limited by the observational retrospective nature of its design. Several unmeasured patient characteristics could have affected our results. Specifically, we could not determine presence of co-existing non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). However, given the strong association between metabolic syndrome and NASH, we hypothesized that diabetes would act as a surrogate for NASH. Although we had information on anti-viral treatment in our database, we opted not to include this variable in our analysis. Conceptually, we expected “anti-viral treatment” variable to have two opposing effects on cirrhosis prevalence––patients with successful anti-viral treatment would be less likely to progress to cirrhosis (negative association); and because patients with cirrhosis are at the highest risk for adverse disease outcomes, they would also be more likely to receive anti-viral treatment (positive association). Given the low rates of anti-viral treatment in our study population (16% of our cohort had ever received at-least one prescription of interferon. Data not shown), we do not anticipate any bias in our analysis. We did not analyze any care that occurred before 1/1/1996 and it is possible that some patients, particularly those included in the database during the earlier years, might have been diagnosed with HCV prior to 1996. This might have caused an over-estimation of cirrhosis prevalence in the earlier years. However, we believe that this effect is likely small because most of the HCV patients in the VA were diagnosed as a result of a widely implemented screening program for HCV in the late 1990’s ( depicts the impact of this screening program). Our analysis was not designed to identify causative elements that lead to progression of liver disease and, therefore, we cannot imply causative relationships about progression from this study. Instead, we planned this analysis to shed light on the burden of illness and its related implications from the perspective of a healthcare system that is managing a large cohort of patients with HCV. Our results are derived from diagnosed HCV infected patients who sought care in the VA healthcare system, and although the generalizability of the biologic process of cirrhosis progression probably extends from these veterans to other HCV infected individuals in the VA as well as nonveterans, further research would be needed to confirm that. We are also limited by the ICD-9 coding system’s sensitivities and specificities for our outcomes, which may vary between the VA and non VA practitioners, thus limiting the generalizability of overall rates of cirrhosis and its complications to HCV patients outside of the VA.
Our analysis highlights that the prevalence of cirrhosis has reached very high proportions among veterans with HCV infection. Given low anti-viral treatment rates for HCV, we believe that the burden of cirrhosis will continue to grow as the HCV cohort ages unless effective treatment can be provided to HCV patients in a timely manner. In light of the increasing burden of cirrhosis and HCC in patients with HCV, clinicians and healthcare system may need to develop strategies targeted to provide timely and effective care to this high-risk patient population.