Hepatitis is hardly a normal conversation starter, but here at the Clearwater Free Clinic, hepatitis C has recently created quite a buzz. The first line of intervention for this chronic, debilitating disease has traditionally been a lengthy course of interferon, a drug that created prolonged and often intolerable side effects and did not entirely eradicate the virus. But treatment for hepatitis C was revolutionized last fall by the FDA approval of Harvoni, a new drug which can actually cure this previously incurable disease.
Right now, the Clinic has over a dozen patients who have been identified with hepatitis C. After completing a thorough protocol of testing and compliance, four patients have just been prescribed Harvoni by Drs. Sreenath and Taunk, volunteer gastroenterologists at the Clinic. But there’s a serious problem…Harvoni is a once-a-day pill, and each pill costs $1000! With courses of medication lasting from 8 to 24 weeks depending upon the severity of the disease, the medication for an average hepatitis C patient would total about $100,000. But wait, ours is a Clinic for the uninsured.
Enter the skills of Julie Lopes and Debbie Landon, Clinic staff whose jobs include working with pharmaceutical companies to provide medication free-of-charge to needy patients through drug assistance programs. And yes, even at $1000 per pill, the manufacturer has provided Harvoni for our four patients who have cleared the requirements and are faithfully taking their medication. “This medicine is a blessing, no question about it,” says Dr. Sreenath. “People respond very well to this present treatment. It is definitely a boon to the hepatitis C world.”
Patients on Harvoni are tested for progress after 4 weeks, and our first two patients have just received their results. On this World Hepatitis Day, we at the Clearwater Free Clinic are excited to report that both patients’ tests came back virus-free after their first month of treatment! What an exciting time this is here at the Clinic; we don’t often have the privilege of witnessing how a new drug can actually eradicate a previously-incurable disease.