March 7, 2013
At the West Haven, Conn., Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital, a small group of patients assembles most Thursday afternoons to take part in a treatment protocol of new antiviral drugs for a common disease that they share -- hepatitis C. West Haven has been one of several VA hospitals nationwide leading efforts to better treat, and hopefully cure, hepatitis C. Nationally, approximately 4,000 veterans have taken the new antiviral drugs since they were introduced in 2011, costing an estimated $100 million in prescriptions. David Ross, director of the national VA's HIV, Hepatitis, and Public Health Pathogens Program, states that people have noted the high cost, but explains that the drugs have made a difference.
West Haven VA staff state that most of the patients there are still completing the full year of triple-drug therapy, but early results are encouraging. These new Food and Drug Administration-approved antiviral medications are providing hepatitis C patients with greater hope; however, they also have added complex layers and risk to an already demanding treatment. The West Haven staff hopes to lessen these challenges by realizing their goal of creating new techniques, including group appointments, which could ultimately help both civilian and military doctors manage an epidemic that kills more Americans each year than AIDS. The Thursday afternoon meetings at West Haven VA Hospital have provided nurses and doctors with the opportunity to educate the patients in taking the drugs properly and have mitigated some of the patients' discomfort.
The West Haven patients are taking two new oral medications, telaprevir and boceprevir. When one of either drug is combined with ribavirin and interferon, the three-drug cocktail has the capability to cure more than 70 percent of patients. An estimated 1.3 percent of Americans are infected with hepatitis C, a virus that is four times more common among veterans than in the general population. Approximately 4 percent of all veterans treated at VA hospitals -- an estimated 165,000 -- have hepatitis C. According to 2008 numbers, the most recent statistics available, approximately 5,000 hepatitis C-infected veterans reside in the region that includes Connecticut. Public health officials speculate that the high prevalence among veterans is because of the way the virus is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact. Barracks tattoos, battlefield transfusions, and, in some cases, IV drug use are common infection sources.
03.04.2013; Meg Heckman
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