For 20 years Connie Baker has lived with Hepatitis C.
The virus can cause liver failure and death, but she has maintained good health, and so hasn’t sought treatment.
Up to now, the side effects of Hep C drugs, using Interferon and Ribaviran, and the year-long treatment, made it something to be avoided if possible for many people with Hep C.
But the threat of sudden liver failure loomed from a disease Baker calls “the silent killer.”
“I’ve seen friends who were so sick – who waited too long [to get treatment], and who have died.”
The Maple Ridge woman has made contact with many people who have Hep C, through a support page on social media.
They wait to get treatment, she explained, because the side effects, for some people, are comparable to chemotherapy.
Fatigue, flu-like symptoms, nausea, diarrhea, rash, anxiety and depression can all manifest, and the treatment goes on for a year.
The cure rate has been a far-from-perfect 60-70 per cent.
“The side effects are so rough that some people don’t even finish the treatment,” she said. “Some have said they have never been the same.”
Baker’s blood tests have been good, but a recent biopsy showed that the disease is doing damage.
Fortunately for her, there is a new Hepatitis C treatment that has people like Baker believing they can finally be cured.
“I’m very excited about it.”
In late December, Health Canada approved the new drug Sovaldi (Sofosbuvir)
It is touted as having a 90 per cent cure rate, the shortest treatment at 12 weeks, shows minimal side effects, and is taken in a once-daily tablet.
“The implications of that are fantastic,” said Dr. Alnoor Ramji, a gastroenterologist in Vancouver. “It [Sovaldi] is going to change the face of Hepatitis C treatment again.”
He said “again” because a breakthrough in treatment two years ago doubled the cure rate from 35 per cent to almost 70 per cent.
Those who tried earlier treatments that were not successful will get a second chance at a cure with Sovaldi.
Baker said she doesn’t know how she contracted the disease, but notes “I have tattoos.”
“It doesn’t really matter how I got it – you can drive yourself crazy … ”
Her experience is typical of many of Dr. Ramji’s patients, and he says 35-40 per cent of them don’t know how they would have contracted the disease. Medical procedures or cuts from glass or metal with infected blood are possible sources.
Ramji said the biggest barrier to eliminating the disease will be in testing. In many people, there are no serious health effects until Hep C makes them sick from liver disease.
The Canadian Liver Foundation suggests that Baby Boomers, Canadians born between 1946 and 1965, be tested for Hep C, because it is most common in that demographic.
“You don’t have to be an an active drug user to contract Hep C,” notes Ramji.
Seeing such advances also offers hope for even better treatments in the future, as medical researchers better understand the virus, and Ramji believes more breakthroughs are close.
“You’re talking about eradicating Hep C.”