Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed a new law that will require hospitals and health service providers in New York to offer Hepatitis C diagnostic tests to all patients born between the years 1945 and 1965. Citizens are being advised to avail of this new system, in order to stave off potentially life-threatening disease. The new law will see the use of the OraQuick® HCV Rapid Antibody test, the only FDA-approved rapid test for the detection of antibodies to the Hepatitis C virus. The test provides results in 20 minutes, leading to improved rates of delivery of results, early diagnosis and corresponding referral to treatment and prevention services, in order to stop the spread of the disease. The law, first passed on June 20th, 2013, saw hundreds of members of HIV/AIDS organizations such as VOCAL New York, make every effort to pass it, taking part in numerous outreach visits to state legislators, holding rallies and organizing legislative briefing and advocacy events in an effort to help people discover their Hepatitis C status. “Many people living with hepatitis C can now be cured with new medication that’s available. But they can only be cured if they know their status early enough,” said representatives of VOCAL New York.
The Law Reflects the Hep-C Boom
Hepatitis C is a contagious disease of the liver that can exist in the body without presenting any symptoms. If left unattended, it can cause cirrhosis, a condition which causes scarring of the liver and, eventually, liver failure. The liver carries out various essential functions, including ridding the body of harmful toxins, purifying the blood and manufacturing nutrients. Cirrhosis interferes with its functioning, causing fibrous tissue and nodules on formerly healthy tissue. Hepatitis, which is mainly caused by sharing needles and coming into contact with blood contaminated with the virus, is particularly prevalent in baby boomers, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that around 75 per cent of all and around 73 per cent of all deaths from Hepatitis C, occur in those born between the years indicated by the new law.
Interestingly, between 45 and 85 per cent of those who have been infected are unaware that they have the disease. By obtaining an early diagnosis, patients can obtain treatment and avoid re-transmitting the virus. “Hepatitis C is a debilitating and potentially fatal disease that disproportionately affects the baby-boomer generation in New York and nationwide,” said Governor Cuomo, highlighting the importance for baby boomers throughout the US to get tested. In addition to causing cirrhosis, Hepatitis C can also lead to liver cancer and is the leading indication for leading transplants.
Federal Government Approve Two New Hepatitis C Medications
Elsewhere in Hepatitis C legal news, the Food and Drug Administration recently approved two new drugs: Sovaldi (by Gilead Sciences) and Olysio (by Janssen). The medications are no less than revolutionary, since they contain direct-acting anti-viral agents. Up until the approval, those suffering from Hepatitis C had usually been treated with pegylated interferon and ribavirin, which required up to one year of treatment and caused unwanted side-effects such as depression and flue-like symptoms, Moreover, these drugs have low cure rates (less than 50 per cent of those with HCV genotype 1). The new medications, in contrast, offer success rates of between 80 and 90 per cent, and are taken as a single pill once daily. The only setback to these medications is their price: Olysio costs over $66,000 for a 12-week course and Sovaldi, $84,000. AIDS Healthcare Foundation President, Michael Weinstein, has referred to Gilead’s pricing of Sovaldi as “a direct threat to public health”, setting the stage “for legislators and advocates to demand that officials who purchase drugs for government programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and the AIDS Drug Assistance Programs act decisively to rein in pricing and protect patient access to lifesaving medications”. As Weinstein notes, each tablet is currently priced at some $1,000. Moreover, the drug is just one component of a two-drug combination treatment for Hepatitis C, currently affecting over three million people in the US.
In New York alone, over 200,000 people are thought to be living with the disease, without knowing of the risk they are posing both to their own health and to that of others. The new law is therefore a welcome step forward in the fight against the dangerous epidemic that is Hepatitis C.