Monday Medical: New treatments for hepatitis C

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William Robinson is thankful for recent developments in the treatment of hepatitis C. The Hayden resident just completed a three-month treatment program at the Yampa Valley Medical Center Outreach Clinic under the guidance of Dr. John R. Sharp, a Steamboat Springs gastroenterologist.

At a glance

It is important to remember that a hepatitis C infection usually produces no signs or symptoms during its earliest stages. When signs and symptoms do occur, they may include:

• Fatigue

• Fever

• Nausea or poor appetite

• Muscle and joint pains

• Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)

If you experience any of these symptoms, see your primary care physician immediately.

The treatment has been successful, and now, Robinson can get back to his normal work week at HLCC Construction.

“I’m happy to get back to a 40-hour work week again,” he said.

Robinson was diagnosed with hepatitis C in late 2013. Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that may range from a mild infection to a serious health condition. Other common types of hepatitis are hepatitis A and B.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hepatitis A appears as a newly occurring infection and does not become chronic.

Hepatitis B and C can begin as an acute infection and progress to chronic disease, and both are spread by the sharing of needles or can be acquired during sex.

Before 1992, when testing of donated blood began, individuals were infected through blood transfusions.

An estimated 3.2 million persons in the United States have a chronic hepatitis C virus infection. Many people may be infected with hepatitis C and not be aware of it because they don’t look or feel sick. It may take decades for the virus to cause serious damage to the liver.

Some people with chronic hepatitis C infection develop scarring and poor liver function (cirrhosis) throughout many years, which can lead to complications such as bleeding, jaundice (yellowish eyes or skin), fluid accumulation in the abdomen, infections or liver cancer.

Although less than 20 percent of patients with hepatitis C ever progress to cirrhosis, the only treatment available would be liver transplantation.

Robinson found out about his disease because every year, he has his blood tested during YVMC’s Community Health Fair. This past October, after his blood test, William visited with his primary care physician, Dr. Charlie Petersen. Based on the elevated levels in his liver, Petersen referred Robinson to Dr. Sharp.

Dr. Sharp knew that new drugs for treating hepatitis C were slated to be approved in early 2014 by the Federal Drug Administration. He encouraged William to wait a few months for the new treatment regime.

Before the new drugs were approved, treatment included injections of interferon. With interferon, patients experienced serious side effects including flu-like symptoms, depression and hair loss and were treated for as many as 48 weeks.

In November 2013, the FDA approved Olysio (simeprevir) for the treatment of chronic hepatitis C infection as a component of a combination antiviral treatment regimen that still included interferon that often was poorly tolerated.

In December, the FDA approved Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) to treat the disease in combination only with Ribavirin tablets.

“These new drugs are game changers,” Dr. Sharp said. “First of all, they are taken as oral medication, not injections. Secondly, they have been found to be extremely effective in treating hepatitis C in a short period of time.”

The FDA recommends treatment periods as short as 12 to 24 weeks.

“These new drugs also have minimal side effects,” Dr. Sharp added.

Recent news articles have stressed the high cost of the new drugs. Robinson is very fortunate that his health insurance, covered by his employer, paid for the expensive medication.

During his treatment, Robinson experienced some fatigue and headaches.

“However, I was still able to work part-time while I was taking the medicine,” he said.

He looks forward to returning to work full-time. When not working, he plans on walking his new puppy, a German short-hair mix named Kiri.

“I’m happy to be done with treatment and thankful for the care I received from Dr. Sharp,” he said.

Dr. Sharp said that patients need to be checked by their physician for hepatitis C and, if positive, consider treatment. His office staff have been able, through relationships with the drug manufacturers and pharmacy benefits coordinators, to obtain the expensive drugs through financial assistance programs even in patients with limited financial means.

“There really isn’t any reason to wait any longer for hepatitis C treatment," Dr. Sharp said. “It is an entirely new day."

Rosie Kern is the manager of marketing and communications for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at rosie.kern@yvmc.org.

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