'There is no doubt we are on the verge of wiping out hepatitis C,' researchers say
New drug could wipe out silent killer responsible for majority of liver transplants
Hepatitis C, a silent, deadly illness that kills more Americans annually than AIDS, is the leading condition behind liver transplants. There is reason to hope with the introduction of a new medication that has had remarkable success in clinical trials. "There is no doubt we are on the verge of wiping out hepatitis C," Dr. Mitchell L. Shiffman says, the director of the Bon Secours Liver Institute of Virginia.
Current treatments for Hepatitis C cure about 70 percent of newly treated patients - but require six to 12 months of injections that can bring debilitating side effects.
The new drugs are expected to cost from $60,000 to more than $100,000 for a course of treatment. For the uninsured or those in developing countries, access to these drugs may prove to be difficult.
Many of those afflicted find themselves in a "Catch 22:" Even when discounts or generic drugs are offered to poor countries, there are no international agencies or charities that buy hepatitis C medications, as there are for H.I.V. and malaria drugs.
Some express concern that the bill will be run up when large numbers of people who have maintained without the new drugs will suddenly turn to them. Many people infected with hepatitis C never suffer serious liver problems.
"The vast majority of patients who are infected with this virus never have any trouble," Dr. Ronald Koretz, emeritus professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles says.
Currently it's not possible to tell in advance whether an infected individual will go on to suffer serious consequences. For patients who can afford the new drugs, the temptation to take them before trouble arises will be powerful.
An estimated three to four million Americans are infected with hepatitis C. About 150 million, which are three to five times the number who have H.I.V. Have hepatitis C worldwide. Most people who are infected do not know it, because it can take decades for the virus to damage the liver sufficiently to cause symptoms.
The number of new infections in the United States has fallen to about 17,000 a year, from more than 200,000 per year in the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There has been a recent rise in cases among young people who inject pain medicines or heroin.
About 16,600 Americans had hepatitis C listed as a cause of death on death certificates in 2010, but this may only represent a small fraction. According to the Centers for Disease Control, while there are fewer new infections, the number of deaths is expected to keep rising as the infections incurred years ago increasingly take their toll.
Hepatitis C is spread chiefly through the sharing of needles, although it can also be acquired during sex. The virus was transmitted through blood transfusions before testing of donated blood began in 1992.
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