Tag: Hepatitis C

Why is the New “Hep C Cure” So Expensive?

The “Hep C Cure” is Essential & Expensive!

The breakthrough in treating Hepatitis C over the past three years has been nothing short of amazing. Two new drugs, Harvoni and Sovaldi, have largely replaced the standard treatment of Interferon and its host of negative side effects.

hep c drugs too expensive
via Wikimedia Commons

What’s even more impressive are how effective these drugs are. Rather than “curing” approximately 50% of those treated, Harvoni and Sovaldi have success rates over 90%. They also have mild to nonexistent side effects.

So, it came as no surprise when the World Health Organization added both Harvoni and Sovaldi to their Essential Medicines List. With between 130 and 150 million people infected with Hepatitis C worldwide, these drugs are certainly essential!


In a statement to the press, WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said the following,

“When new effective medicine that could treat serious and widespread diseases appears on the market, it is necessary to ensure that everyone who needs the treatment can acquire it…Placing them on WHO Essential Medicines List is a first step in that direction” (The Standard Daily).

What is surprising, however, is the price tag of these blockbuster drugs. Find out more about the WHO’s Essential Medicines list below and, more importantly, why the much needed Harvoni and Sovaldi are so expensive.

What are needle exchange programs?

What’s This List All About?

The World Health Organization’s Essential Medicines List is a sort of international standard used by governments to guide their national-level medical policy. In other words, it’s how various nations decide which medications and treatments should be used and at what scale.

The list is updated every two years. In addition to Harvoni and Sovaldi, this year’s update contained a handful of cancer drugs and some aimed at drug resistant tuberculosis.

Traditionally, the Essential Medicines List is divided into two sections, the core and complimentary lists. The core list is made up of the medications necessary for a basic health care system to function. The complimentary list is made up of medications that treat specific diseases.

Another standard of the WHO’s list is their focus on making sure all medicines included are inexpensive. They disregarded that qualification this year, in favor of adding drugs that have been proven to be remarkably effective.

This point brings us nicely to the ongoing dialogue around Harvoni and Sovaldi’s cost. Why do these literally essential medications cost so much?

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The “Hep C Cure” is Too Expensive!

Before we go any further, it’s probably time to lay out how much Harvoni and Sovaldi cost. Harvoni clocks in at between $80,000 and $100,000 for a full course of treatment (approximately twelve-weeks). Sovaldi is slightly more reasonable at between $63,000 and $90,000 for a full course of treatment.

Both medications usually come with insurance and manufacturer discounts, which drop the average cost a few thousand dollars. Still, with a price tag ranging from the high five to low six digits, most people can’t afford these drugs.

It’s easier to obtain them in developed countries where heath insurance will cover most of the cost. It isn’t guaranteed however. There’s been anecdotal evidence of insurance companies refusing patients’ treatment because it’s simply too expensive.

In the developing world, well, it’s a whole different story. The World Health Organization Assistant Director-General, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, said, “While some efforts have been made to reduce their price for low-income countries, without uniform strategies to make these medicines more affordable globally the potential for public health gains will be reduced considerably” (NDTV).

How can Harvoni and Sovaldi be made less expensive and more available to those who need them most? How can these drugs be put into the hands of low-income peoples the world over? Well, Dr. Kieny believes adding both these drugs to the Essential Medicines List is a good first step. I can’t help but wonder what the next step is though.

Still confused about Hep C treatment? Learn everything you need to know in this handy guide!

Hep C on the Rise & More Dangerous than HIV

An Outbreak Worse than HIV

A lot of noise has been made lately about Indiana’s HIV outbreak. It’s understandable, especially with over 150 residents testing positive for the infamous virus and numbers expected to keep rising.

hep c virus on the rise
image via Wikimedia Commons

There’s another outbreak that’s been causing quiet waves over the last few years. It hasn’t been getting as much media coverage as HIV, though it’s deadlier and spreading faster. I’m talking about the dramatic rise in Hepatitis C infections since 2006.

A recent study conducted by the Center for Disease Control notes an alarming rise in Hep C rates. This increase is centered in four Appalachian states – Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Other areas of the country have been hit and the numbers keep growing. After seeing a 150% nationwide rise in Hep C infections between 2010 and 2013, John Ward, the Director of the CDC’s Division of Viral Hepatitis, went on record as saying, “We have a major problem with hepatitis C” (The Wall Street Journal).

What’s going on? Why are so many IV drug users becoming infected with Hepatitis C? Are all these addicts sharing needles? Find out below.

What’s going on in Indiana??

A Realistic View of Hep C in America

Find the latest information about Hepatitis C in America broken down below:

  • The four states hit the hardest have been Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. There have been increased cases of Hep C in other parts of the country, notably in Wisconsin, Massachusetts and upstate New York.

  • All these areas are rural, non-urban environments where IV painkiller abuse is prevalent.

  • How much have infection rates grown? Well, from 2006 to 2012 they grew a whopping 364%. Of all these cases, 73% were linked directly to IV drug use.

  • A large percentages of these cases, almost 45%, were among white men and women under the age of thirty.

  • During this six year period, there was also a 12.6% rise in the admittance of IV drug users to addiction treatment centers.

  • All told, approximately three million Americans are thought to be infected with Hep C. Large portions of these infections are unrelated to IV drug use (baby boomers infected prior to safety regulations on blood transfusions).
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    Why Are So Many People Getting Infected?

    There’s been a large increase in Hepatitis C infections since the mid 2000’s. That much is fact. The question then becomes, simply, what now? Why are so many people getting infected and what can we do to stop the spread of HCV?

    Well, before looking at how to prevent and treat Hep C, let’s first examine why it’s spreading so rapidly. Let’s look at why, compared to HIV and other blood borne diseases, it’s spreading like wildfire (Hep C is approximately five times as prevalent as HIV).

    The answer is actually rather simple. Hep C is a more spreadable virus than HIV. It takes smaller quantities of the virus, already at minuscule levels, to infect an individual. This alone makes it more likely to spread.

    Add into the equation painkillers. Generally, when injecting painkillers, individuals need to use a higher gauge syringe. This leads to larger puncture wounds and more infected blood in the syringe. This, then, leads to greater infection rates.

    In fact, when a CDC team investigated this idea, they found that users who injected painkillers were five times more likely to test positive for Hepatitis C than those who injected only heroin.

    A simple guide to understanding Hep C treatment

    Hep C Treatment

    Now that we have an understanding of why HCV is spreading so quickly, let’s examine what can be done to halt this spread and treat the virus itself.

    In recent years there’s been an explosion of highly effective Hep C drugs. The most recent of these, Harvoni, has over a 90% success rate. It’s a twelve-week regimen of direct anti-viral medicine. Unlike Interferon, an older treatment, Harvoni carries with it almost no side effects.

    hcv infection

    So, there’s a medicine available with high “cure” rates and minimal side effects. Surely Hepatitis C shouldn’t worry anyone anymore, right? Well, there is a downside – the cost. An entire twelve-week supply of Harvoni can cost anywhere from $80,000 to upwards of $100,000.

    With prices reaching sky-high levels, many insurance companies are hesitant to pay. The question then becomes how to stop the spread of Hep C altogether. After all, if people aren’t getting infected, there’s no need for expensive treatment.

    Perhaps the best strategy to reduce the spread of Hepatitis C, and other blood borne disease, is education and outreach. Schools, community organizations, treatment centers, and other recovery resources should continue a dialogue about Hep C. They should educate the public on what the virus is, how it’s spread, and how to avoid contracting it.

    This moves us nicely towards direct outreach. These are things like syringe exchange programs, low cost health clinics, and other harm reduction methods. Although controversial, harm reduction has been shown to greatly reduce instances of Hep C and HIV infection.

    Through this combined approach, education and outreach, I believe we stand a real chance at halting Hepatitis C in its tracks. This can’t come soon enough. With the painkiller and heroin epidemic raging, with the increased prevalence of infectious disease, we need a solution and now! This just might be it.

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