Coined the “silent killer,” hepatitis C (HCV), a disease that attacks the liver and can cause cancer, kills more Americans than HIV/AIDS each year. HCV is spread primarily by blood-to-blood contact associated with intravenous drug use, poorly sterilized medical equipment and transfusions.
Unfortunately, like most other diseases, African-Americans are disproportionately impacted by HCV. We are less likely to be tested for it, twice as likely to have the disease, more likely to die from it and live in communities that put us at higher risk for the disease. Not to mention, Blacks living with HCV were less likely to respond well to treatment than whites and have significantly lower cure rates.
But there is good news.
AbbVie, Gilead and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY) all have new generation HCV medications waiting for FDA approval that have proven cure rates of almost 100 percent among Blacks and Latinos with HCV.
BET.com sat down with Hadiyah Charles, the Hepatitis C Advocacy Manager for the Harm Reduction Coalition, to get the scoop on these new drugs, why getting tested is crucial and what you can do to prevent HCV.
Why didn’t the past drugs work as well in African-Americans and Latinos?
The issue is with genotype 1 [1 of 7 classes of HCV]. Prior treatment didn’t fare well in people with genotype-1, which mostly consisted of Black and brown people. And when the drugs were being tested, they didn’t include a lot of people of color, because let’s face it, we are not running up to take part in a clinical trial.
What is different about these new HCV drugs?
The treatments that existed before had a component called interferon, which you had to inject three times a week. Interferon gave people flu like side effects and also made people really depressed. And while therapy changed to one shot a week, this treatment is really tough on the body and has to be taken for 12-18 months, which is really long. And given how tough this regimen is on the body, a lot of people don’t finish it.
These new drugs are taken orally — no injections needed — and there is no interferon in them. Even better, you only have to take these meds for 8-12 weeks and there is a 100 percent cure rate for Black and Latinos. Most likely, these drugs will be approved by the FDA this December and will be on the market early 2014.
How prevalent is HCV in the U.S.?
It’s often called the “silent epidemic” because it takes 20-25 years to have any real symptoms and by the time you show symptoms, the disease has really progressed. That’s why it is important for people to get tested.
Right now, it’s estimated that 3.2 million Americans have HCV, but those numbers are really conservative given that these numbers don’t take into account undocumented, incarcerated or homeless folks.
Who should be tested?
Right now, the CDC has this big push to get all Baby Boomers (people born between the years 1947-1965) tested for HCV. Baby Boomers grew up in a time with more drug experimentation and free love, which put them at risk.
My organization just got legislation passed in New York that requires for doctors to bring up HCV testing to all Baby Boomer patients. What’s great about this is that it destigmatizes testing, because instead of listing risk factors such as IV drug use or being incarcerated, the doctor emphasizes that because they are Baby Boomers they should consider testing. The patient doesn’t have to test for HCV, but with this new approach we hope to catch undiagnosed cases. Right now we are just waiting on the governor of New York to sign it.
What about younger folks?
HCV is also an issue for younger people to think about, too. There has been an enormous increase of hep C among younger Black injection drug users.
There is also a huge culture of tattooing among certain Black demographics. HCV is a blood born virus that can live outside of the body for two weeks. So if you are going to get a tattoo, make sure that the tattoo artist is not only using a clean needle, but new ink. That link could be contaminated from someone else with HCV and put you at risk.
Same with nail salons, it’s important to find a salon that properly sterilizes their tools.
What else can be done to prevent HCV?
Providing IV drug users with clean kits for every hit. Kits include more than just a needle, but cotton and a tin with water that users use to flush out the syringe. If any of those things are contaminated, the drug user is at risk for HCV.
Finally, why are these new meds so important to us?
It’s not very often that we are in a disease situation, where we have access to a cure, and with hep C, that’s exactly what we have. If anything, it’s not like HIV where you have to live with it forever. All you need to do is get tested and seek out treatment options.
Learn more about HCV here.
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(Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)