Until recently, if you were infected with hepatitis C, you had to endure a year of grueling treatments that often made you feel sicker than the disease itself and usually ended in disappointment for half of the people who suffered through them, desperate for a cure.
Once treatment failed, treatment ceased and the disease took over.
But today there is new hope for the 3 million Americans infected with this potentially deadly blood-borne virus. A new class of drugs called direct‐acting antiviral (DAA) agents halts the virus, according to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).
Instead of 70 percent of affected individuals going on to develop chronic liver disease and 15,000 of those patients dying each year, today’s new treatments can cure upwards of 90 percent of those infected, successfully treating strains of the virus most common in the United States.
Biopharmaceutical companies have spent billions researching and developing these new treatments, which not only have better cure rates, but also have shorter treatment times — 12 weeks of treatment spares most from years of suffering and from advancement of the disease, provided the disease is caught in the early stages. These new treatments aren’t like 48-week regimens of the past, which caused flu-like symptoms and anemia. Side effects are minimal compared to those in the past, according to PhRMA.
This is particularly good news today because the disease disproportionately affects the aging Baby Boom generation. Three quarters of infected adults were born between 1945 – 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For affected members of that generation, the lurking virus, undiagnosed in three out of every four people infected, is a ticking time bomb.
Hepatitis C progresses slowly. The virus can stalk the liver silently for decades before it causes deadly damage or scarring, known as cirrhosis, and can lead to liver cancer, according to the CDC. Often, people don’t have symptoms until their liver is already starting to fail.
As the virus begins to emerge in Baby Boomers, the cost of treating the symptoms of the disease will likely increase dramatically without the availability of newer, more effective therapies. Medical costs associated with treating the disease are projected to jump from $30 billion to more than $85 billion over the next 20 years, according to a report produced by Milliman.
In 2012, government officials began recommending routine hepatitis C screenings for all patients born between 1945 and 1965. Today, the goal is to have people diagnosed and treated early. The goal is not only to prevent those affected from reaching end stage liver disease but also to head off billions in associated healthcare costs, says PhRMA President and CEO John Castellani.
“Curing hepatitis C not only dramatically improves patients’ lives, but can help avoid billions of dollars in medical costs by preventing expensive hospitalizations and liver transplants that routinely cost over $500,000 each,” he says.
Treatments for liver cancer can cost upwards of $112,000 a year.
These new treatments offer hope that the rising number of deaths associated with hepatitis C infection can be stemmed and that patients suffering from the disease can be spared the treatments of the past, which often brought suffering but no cure.