Hepatitis-C cases increase as drug prices soar; doctors urge all to get tested

Hepatitis-C cases increase as drug prices soar; doctors urge all to get tested
Updated: Jul. 17, 2017 at 6:27 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The number of people being diagnosed with hepatitis-C has shot up significantly.

It is well known that abuse of opioid painkillers has driven some younger adults to heroin use, but they are not the only ones being urged to get tested for the virus - so are baby-boomers.

"The thing about hepatitis C I think is so insidious is that you look normal, there's no hepatitis C look," said Dr. Cassandra Youmans, associate professor of medicine at LSU Health New Orleans.

She also treats patients at University Medical Center in New Orleans.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control said over the past five years, the number of new hepatitis C infection cases has nearly tripled, reaching a 15-year high.

And the Louisiana Department of Health believes at least 73,000 people in the state are currently infected with the virus and as many as 500 are newly infected each year.

"I think we are kind of at the tip of the iceberg. I think our data is showing there is a large prevalence of hepatitis C," said Allison Vertovec, community projects manager with Crescent Care.

Hep-C is primarily spread through blood.

"People are asymptomatic until they develop end stage of liver decomposition or even develop liver cancer," said Youmans.

So testing sooner than later is critical.

"Former IV drug users, over 60 percent of the people that we see were former IV drug users," said the doctor.

She said UMC is being very proactive with patients.

"There's no universal screening, and the CDC is recommending that we specifically target baby-boomers. But in our emergency department we're targeting everybody that comes through with screening," Youmans stated.

And people getting tattoos are at-risk as well if the environment in which they are being serviced is not sterile.

"Frequently, I see people that had privately placed tattoos, especially patients that had been incarcerated at some point in time," Youmans said.

A local syringe exchange program is operating in the city under Crescent Care.

"On any given day, if we test 10 people through the syringe exchange, six or seven of them might have hepatitis C antibodies. Now that doesn't mean they have an acute infection," said Vertovec.

The state health department is vigorously fighting the rising costs of hep-C medications.

"The cost of drugs can range from $55 to over a hundred thousand dollars, depending on how long someone has to be treated, and I'm quoting that figure based on a 12-week cycle of therapy," Youmans said.

The health department said the state cannot afford to purchase all the necessary drugs at such costs, and many of the poor and vulnerable cannot access life-saving cures.

"If you have stage three or four right now, many of the Medicaid HMOs have restricted access to care for patients in stage three or stage four, fibrosis," Youmans said.

And it is not just needles that are a problem. Medical professionals want people to know that hep-C can be spread through sex.

"Many people don't know that hepatitis B and C can be acquired sexually," said Dr. Youmans.

But knowing one's status sooner than later is key.

"It's 99.9 percent treatable, almost 100 percent treatable," said Youmans.

She said there are also cases of people contracting the virus from sharing straws used to snort cocaine.

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