Don't Get Lost in Hepatitis C Limbo

An older man consults with his pharmacist about hep C treatment. There are a number of barriers that prevent hep C patients from getting treated.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends every person between 18 and 79 years old get tested for hepatitis C virus (HCV). While there are treatments that can cure a hep C infection, published data shows that people with hep C are lost at every step of the care process, from screening to diagnosis to treatment.

Here are some common reasons people get lost in the treatment shuffle.

Reason 1: They don’t know they have HCV

HCV is picked up by contact with infected blood, often from sharing needles. If you’re in a high-risk group—if you’ve ever used injected drugs or are a baby boomer, for example—it’s very important to get tested. Up to 70 percent of people with HCV have no symptoms. Especially at risk are baby boomers, who some estimates put at more than two-thirds of all HCV cases in the US, and no one is quite sure why.

Tests look for antibodies your body makes to combat HCV, or for genetic evidence of the virus itself. Getting tested is the first step, and if the test comes up positive, the next step is finding out which variant (called a genotype) you have. About 70 percent of Americans with HCV have genotype 1. The genotype will guide how your doctor treats you.

Reason 2: They don’t know how important and effective treatment can be

Studies show that new treatments can knock out the virus in more than 9 out of 10 people. Even if you have had unsuccessful treatment in the past, your odds of beating the disease are almost as good.

That’s great news, because not treating HCV can kill you. HCV deaths in the U.S. continue to rise, climbing to nearly 20,000 in 2013, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that’s probably an underestimate. An estimated 3.2 million people in the U.S. have chronic HCV. Even if HCV doesn’t kill you outright, if left untreated, HCV can lead to cirrhosis or cancer of the liver.

Reason 3: They’re afraid of the side effects

Past treatments revolved around the use of interferon, which brought about side effects so bad that many people stopped taking the drugs. The newer interferon-free therapies typically have much fewer side effects.

Reason 4: Paying for treatment

True, treatment cost can be a concern. A 12-week regimen of one new drug could total up to $84,000. But many drug-makers offer financial assistance programs—one such plan greatly reduces co-pays—and you can work with your doctors, your pharmacy and your health insurers to come up with ways to lower your bills.

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