New tools in battle against deadly disease
Special to The Union
For years, hepatitis C was a disease that challenged the medical community on many fronts: It was not only infectious and life-threatening, but it was also very difficult to treat.
“In the past, the only treatment options for hepatitis C were lengthy – lasting many months – and came with miserable side effects,” explains Dr. Andrew Chang of Sierra Nevada Gastroenterology, who treats hepatitis C patients from throughout the region. “And the success rate was bad too – only about 40 percent.”
That made hepatitis C a frustrating, and dangerous, disease.
But now, a group of local health care providers and advocates are teaming up to spread the word: Not only is there a new, better treatment option for hepatitis C, but the idea of eradicating the disease around the world may actually become a reality.
“Eliminating hepatitis C sounds like an audacious goal,” says Dr. Ken Cutler, Nevada County Public Health Officer. “But the treatment of hepatitis C has become effective enough that the World Health Organization believes it can be done.”
Hepatitis C is a viral infection of the liver, transmitted by contaminated blood.
In the past, hepatitis C could be spread through blood transfusions and organ transplants, however blood screening that began in the early 1990s virtually eliminated that risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Today, most people with hepatitis C become infected by sharing needles or syringes used to inject drugs. The CDC says rates of new infections have been on the rise, due in part to the increase in injection drug use.
Worldwide, an estimated 180 million people are infected with hepatitis C. In the US, about four million people are infected. Less than 50 percent of those infected know that they have it.
“Hepatitis C infection can go unnoticed for decades until it causes liver damage that can be severe,” explains Dr. Cutler. “Hepatitis C is one of the major causes of liver cancer in the US and is the most common reason for liver transplantation.”
Screening for hepatitis C is a simple blood test. But for those who test positive, treatment has historically been difficult and not very successful.
Now, however, a new and markedly improved treatment is available. This new medication requires only one pill a day for 12 weeks or less. Side effects are almost zero. And the cure rate is more than 90 percent.
“This new treatment is dramatically altering how we think about hepatitis C,” Dr. Chang says.
Drs. Chang and Cutler are part of a hepatitis C elimination project – a collaborative effort between Nevada County Public Health Department; Sierra Nevada Gastroenterology, other local health care providers, and the non-profit FREED Center for Independent Living, with support from Dignity Health Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.
“The key now is increasing the number of people getting screened for hepatitis C,” says Dr. Chang. “To do that, we are recommending everyone – at every age with or without risk factors – talk to their doctor about getting screened.”
The elimination project team includes a navigator who is able to support and guide anyone who tests positive.
“Sometimes patients need extra support working with insurance eligibility, making appointments, and getting transportation,” says Dr. Cutler. “The navigator helps with those issues.”
Armed with a vastly improved treatment option and a recommendation for everyone to get screened, Drs. Chang and Cutler are hoping to be a part of the worldwide movement to erase hepatitis C.
“We want to get the word out in Nevada County,” says Dr. Cutler. “We hope to avoid the pain and suffering that can accompany advanced liver disease.”
Dr. Chang says he is hopeful that thanks to the new treatment and expanded screening recommendation, eliminating this difficult disease may become a reality. “I never thought I would be able to envision a world in which hepatitis C is eradicated, but with this new treatment – that is a very real possibility.”
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