Hepatitis C affects approximately 3.5 million Americans and nearly 150 million people globally. Each year, Hepatitis C kills more people in America than all infectious diseases put together. To date, there is no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C but over the past decade, several new antiviral drugs have been developed that can cure it.
The unfortunate thing is that most people do not know they have the infection or they could easily be treated with these drugs. Prior to the availability of these medications, the majority of people with Hepatitis C went on to develop chronic liver failure or liver cancer. But clinical evidence for these new drugs shows improved survival and no progression to liver failure. In addition, the drugs are relatively safe.
While Hepatitis C is a slow progressive disease, it often causes permanent damage to the liver, at which point there is no treatment except for a liver transplant. Hepatitis C is acquired after being exposed to infected blood or using intravenous illicit drugs (e.g. opiates, heroin). For the past 3 decades, all the blood for transfusion is screened and that is why, today, acquiring hepatitis C via a blood transfusion is very rare. For those who do become infected with it, there are no obvious symptoms except fatigue. That is precisely why many people who may are infected do not know it. The only way to know if you have hepatitis C is to get a blood test. Unfortunately, the blood test for Hepatitis is not routinely done in every day patients except during pregnancy.
The CDC recommends that anyone who received blood products before 1992, uses illicit drugs, or has HIV should get tested for Hepatitis C. Others who may benefit from Hepatitis C testing include individuals who have body piercing, tattoos and people born in parts of the world where Hepatitis C infections are common like North Africa and the Middle East.
Hepatitis C has traditionally been treated with Interferon but this treatment consists of weekly injections for a year, and the cure rate is low. These new oral anti-viral drugs have a high cure rat. Among these include OLYSIO (simeprevir) VICTRELIS (boceprevir) and INCIVEK (telaprevir). These drugs, if taken for eight weeks, have nearly a 100% cure rate and are virtually free of side effects. Once the infection has been cured, there is no risk of developing liver cancer. The one major downside to these drugs is the cost which is prohibitive for most patients. Until the price of these drugs comes down and until testing becomes more comprehensive for patients, Hepatitis C may continue to be a silent killer for many Americans.