As Number of Hep C Cases Increase, Treatment Options Expand

Line of hepatitis C patients wait to hear about new treatment optionsHealth care officials estimate that hepatitis C affects an estimated 4 million people in the United States alone, and to make matters worse, most people don’t even realize it. Hepatitis C is an infectious disease which can hide within a patient’s body for up to three decades without showing any symptoms. During this time, the disease can wreak havoc on the patient’s liver, scarring it so severely that it can fail. In fact, hepatitis C is the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.

In addition to liver scarring (cirrhosis), hepatitis C has caused a recent increase in the number of liver cancer cases. Heath care officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have noted that liver cancer is currently the fastest-growing cause of cancer-related mortality, which has become even more notable in a time where most cancer mortality rates are declining.

CDC Says Baby Boomers Should be Tested for Hep C

Only last fall, the CDC made an unprecedented announcement concerning the risk of hepatitis C for members of the baby boomer generation. In their official statement to the country, CDC officials stated that everyone who had been born between 1945 and 1965 (nearly 80 million people) should get tested for hepatitis C. They estimated that two out of every three Americans living with this infectious disease had been born during this time period.

Nancy Turner, a 58 year old mental health nurse from Massachusetts, is one of those people. Three years ago, she scheduled an appointment with her doctor to have some suspicious symptoms checked out, but she was unprepared for the diagnosis of hepatitis C. She recalls feeling some flu-like symptoms and abnormal fatigue, but at the time she figured it was just side effects of working long hours at her job. Following some tests, doctors found a high level of hepatitis C in Turner’s blood.

As with many who receive this diagnosis, the initial reaction can be that of complete shock and devastation. For Turner, it was no different when her doctor gave her the unfortunate news of testing positive for hepatitis C. She remembers that one of her first thoughts following the news was trying to think how she could have possibly come into contact with contaminated blood.

Contracting Hepatitis C

The fact is that many baby boomers came into contact with HCV through experimentation with certain illicit drugs, either by injecting or snorting them. Both of these methods can provide the virus with direct admission into the patient’s bloodstream, which is the only way that you can get hepatitis C. The virus cannot be spread via kissing, coughing, or sharing drinks.

On the other hand, a sizeable number of baby boomers could have contracted hepatitis C if they had a blood transfusion before 1992. Before then, there hadn’t been strict background checks of donated blood, and several outbreaks can be traced to this. This is actually how many infections are discovered in the present day, as they run full scans for all blood that is donated.

Nancy’s Battle with Hepatitis C

Nancy Turner admits to trying marijuana when she was younger, but she says that she never experimented with any harder drugs. However, as a nurse, she has a much higher risk of coming into contact with infected blood; it is one of the risks of being a health care worker. Hepatitis C could be spread via an accidental break in the skin or simple needle prick.

As far as Turner can remember, none of these things have ever happened while she was on the job. In the end, she may never learn how she came into contact with the virus, as is the case in a third of people diagnosed with hepatitis C.

Following her diagnosis, her doctor started her on a standard course of treatment for hepatitis C, two drugs called pegylated interferon and ribavirin. Unfortunately, these drugs can cause certain adverse effects in patients, and soon Turner found her life disrupted even further by the side effects (these range from depression and fatigue to more adverse reactions). It was a tough adjustment to make, but she was determined to conquer her illness and restore her life to normal.

At first, her prescribed course of treatment seemed to do the trick, as her body seemed to be cleared of the virus. However, she got some discouraging news when she went back in for a three-month post treatment blood work-up. The tests showed that the virus had returned with a vengeance.

Two New Drugs Approved for Hepatitis C

Immunologist examining hepatitis viral activityThen in 2011, the FDA approved two new drugs for hepatitis C, boceprevir (marketed as Victrelis) and telaprevir (Incivek). Turner’s doctor decided to start her on one of these new drugs in combination with the standard hep C treatments (unfortunately, scientists are still working on a vaccine for hepatitis C).

This new treatment regimen took an even greater toll on her body. Over the course of treatment, Turner experienced severe rashes, a loss of appetite, and other adverse effects. In fact, she had lost a total of 60 pounds by the end of it. Still, with the help of a fellow nurse practitioner, Kathleen Coleman, she was able to manage the side effects of her hepatitis C treatment regimen.

The “Other” 20 Percent…..

Once again, tests were showing that the treatment was working to eliminate the virus from Turner’s body. The drugs appeared to be capable of rapidly clearing the HCV from her blood, as is the case for most patients today. In fact, with the latest hep C drugs, doctors are seeing clearance rates of around 79 to 90 percent compared to the 35 to 40 percent clearance rates that used to be the norm.

Following her latest course of treatment, Turner again went back in for the three month post treatment blood work. Unfortunately the tests showed that the virus had yet again come roaring back. This puts her in the ranks of the 20 percent who have yet to be cured with the newest hepatitis C drugs available. However, this is not the end of Turner’s story, as there are a number of new drugs being developed at this moment. In fact, a new form of interferon-free medication for hepatitis C has been producing unprecedented cure rates in clinical trials. Could this be the answer to Turner’s struggles? We will have to wait and see.