This article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on April 6, 2017.
More Albertans suffering from hepatitis C will receive treatment thanks to public funding for new therapies, says Stephen Shafran, a University of Alberta professor of medicine who specializes in the virus. He spoke Wednesday to Postmedia about a game-changing drug and how Alberta can help eradicate hepatitis C.
Here’s a condensed, edited version [of] the interview.
Q: Alberta Health has made the drug Epclusa available to more patients. The treatment is a pill taken once per day for 12 weeks that has been shown to cure all six strains of hepatitis C in more than 95 per cent of cases. What does that mean for people living with chronic hepatitis C?
A: Now we have the ability to treat people with every type of genotype. Non-genotype 1 patients have had to wait for several years. The funders have now opened the doors to let us treat people with mild liver disease … if they have one of several types of conditions, such as HIV, fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease and diabetes. The percentage of patients I have to tell we can’t treat this year has at least gone down.
Q: What will you tell patients who don’t qualify for the new therapies?
A: The health-care budget … is for everyone and every illness and there are a lot of competing demands. I’m hoping that the rules change. I really believe we will eventually get an open season on treatment.
Q: Epclusa is considered to be an expensive treatment. Is it too pricey?
A: The list cost for these (new) treatments are all about $60,000 per course of treatment; however, we know from the pan-Canadian Pharmaceutical Alliance, (the government) negotiated a substantial discount. All the economic analyses say it’s cost-effective. With older therapies, you have to factor in cost of people who need more treatment, liver transplants, end-stage disease. Cost per cure is cheaper because the cure is almost certain.
Q: The World Health Organization wants to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030 globally. Who is mainly affected by the disease in Alberta?
A: Hepatitis C probably affects just under one per cent of the population. The most common scenario is a person who, at least at some point in their life, used injection drugs, but that doesn’t mean they’re addicts. There are people infected through contaminated blood products, through mother-to-child transmission.
Q: Who should be screened for the virus?
A: It’s a simple blood test. I would advise people born between 1945-65, anyone who’s ever done injection drugs, even once ever, anyone who has received a blood transfusion before 1990 and those born and raised in developing countries to get screened.