Hepatitis C is the nation’s deadliest infectious disease and a leading cause of liver cancer. Although recent advances in treatment represent lifesaving progress, more must be done to deliver on the promise of these advances and eliminate viral hepatitis in the United States.
I was initially diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1990, but, like many people with it, I deferred treatment — the options available had low success rates, significant side effects, and were time-consuming. For a while the complications were minimal, but by the early 2000s my tests began to show signs of liver disease. By 2008, I had signs of cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver, a sign of late-stage liver disease and a precursor to liver failure.
At the 2008 liver diseases meeting in San Francisco, which I was attending as a longtime viral hepatitis advocate, Dr. Nezam Afdhal, who is now the chief of the division of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, convinced me to enroll in a clinical trial for a promising new hepatitis C drug.
The 48 weeks of treatment included weekly injections of pegylated interferon, twice daily doses of ribavirin, an antiviral medication, and 12 weeks of an experimental drug called telaprevir, a direct-acting antiviral. When the treatment ended in December 2009, my blood tests showed no signs of the hepatitis C virus. Six months later, I was told I was cured. Even better, scans show that my liver has started to heal itself and reverse the decades of damage from hepatitis C.
Most state Medicaid programs continue to restrict access to hepatitis C medicines
My story — and my health — are a testament to the lifesaving potential of new treatments. Yet even though we now have cures for hepatitis C, and a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B, steps must be taken to reach the populations who are disproportionately affected by this disease, including certain racial and ethnic minorities, baby boomers, people who inject drugs, and some recipients of blood transfusions and organ transplants, in order to eliminate viral hepatitis in the U.S.
To start, the U.S. needs a national elimination strategy with dedicated funding. In 2016, the World Health Organization drafted the global viral hepatitis strategy to eliminate viral hepatitis as a public health threat by 2030. It was signed by all WHO members, including the U.S. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has a National Viral Hepatitis Action Plan, but it’s not enough. We need dedicated funding from Congress for national awareness and testing efforts. We also need funding to support the CDC’s draft recommendation for all adults to receive a one-time hepatitis C antibody test.
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