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New Treatments for Hepatitis C Offer Hope

Gloved hand holds a vial labeled Hepatitis C Test

VA hospitals encourage every patient to be tested for Hepatitis C. Veterans enrolled for VA care with questions on Hepatitis C testing or evaluation should contact their Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT).

By Ed Drohan
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

High cure rates with less side effects and shorter treatment time

What is Hepatitis C?

Hepatitis C is a viral disease. Those at risk often have received blood products, have homemade tattoos or piercings, or have used intravenous (IV) drugs. They may also have had unprotected sex with multiple partners. Hepatitis C causes cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer. Most people do not have any symptoms or show any immediate signs of infection, so it may go undetected for decades. Vietnam Veterans and those born between 1945 and 1965 are at a high risk.

New treatment regimens for patients with chronic Hepatitis C have a very high success rate: 95 to 99 percent are cured of the disease. Treatment of the blood-borne virus is 12 weeks, down from a year, and at reduced risk. A blood test can detect the disease.

How do you know you have Hepatitis C?

Blood tests can determine a Hepatitis C infection. Tests can also detect the specific strain – or genome – of the virus. This is necessary to know so that doctors can determine which treatment to use. Jaela Dahl, VA infectious disease pharmacist, says one big problem is getting people in for treatment.

“If you have Hepatitis C, you don’t necessarily feel like you have Hepatitis C,” Dahl said. “You don’t really have symptoms and you won’t have symptoms until the disease progresses. So you can live 20, 30 years and not really know.”

New treatments have higher cure rate

New drugs have been developed to target specific strains of the virus. These are more effective with fewer side effects than past treatments.

Past treatments often had severe side effects that were difficult for patients to handle. And, previous treatments only had about a 40 to 50 percent cure rate, says Mike McNulty, a VA physician assistant. The new treatments have a 95 to 99 percent cure rate with little to no side effects. Patients only need to take one or two pills a day for 12 weeks, rather than weekly injections for a year.

The new treatments can be expensive. The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates the cost between $25,000 and $68,000 for 12 weeks of treatment for one patient. Congress has approved funding for Hepatitis C treatment. The VA is trying to get every patient who has tested positive for Hepatitis C to be further evaluated for treatment.

If you haven't already, get tested now

VA hospitals encourage every patient to be tested for Hepatitis C. You may not have any symptoms until the disease is very advanced. If you have tested positive for Hepatitis C, then seek treatment immediately. Veterans with questions on Hepatitis C testing or evaluation should contact their Patient Aligned Care Team (PACT).

If you answer yes to any of the following questions, talk with your health care provider about being tested for Hepatitis C:

  • Have not yet been tested and wish to be
  • Was born between 1945 and 1965
  • Have ever used a needle to inject drugs, even if once and long ago
  • Had a blood transfusion or organ transplant before 1992
  • Are a health care worker who had blood exposure to mucous membranes or to non- intact skin, or a needle stick injury
  • Was on longterm kidney dialysis
  • Was born of a mother who had Hepatitis C at the time
  • Are a Vietnam-era Veteran
  • Had contact with Hepatitis C-positive blood to non-intact skin or to mucous membranes
  • Received tattoos or body piercings in non-regulated settings
  • Have ever snorted drugs or shared equipment
  • Have liver disease or an abnormal liver function test
  • Have a history of alcohol abuse
  • Have hemophilia and received clotting factor before 1987
  • Have had a sexual partner with Hepatitis C, now or in the past
  • Have had 10 or more lifetime sexual partners
  • Have HIV infection

You need blood tests to find out if you have Hepatitis C. If you are diagnosed, you can get the health care and support you need. You’ll also need to learn how to avoid giving the virus to others.

For more articles on health and wellness specifically geared to Veterans, visit the VISN 8 publications page.

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