Hepatitis C Epidemic Keeps Researchers Searching for Solutions

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif-Physician Karen Seal does not agree with the National Institute of Health (NIH) on hepatitis treatment. While the NIH recommends people with drug addictions not be treated for the viral disease, Seal argues healthcare workers should not discriminate against those who are ill.

Hepatitis C (HCV) is frequently transmitted via contaminated needles. Those who use intravenous drugs are at a high risk of becoming infected. The disease can lay dormant in a person for several decades before causing potentially fatal liver damage. It is often called the silent epidemic and it afflicts an estimated 4 million Americans and 170 million people globally.

Sometimes a person can fight off the virus without the aid of medical attention. Often, people don't realize they have become infected. However, there are many who are sent into the disease's acute stage, leaving them with irreparable liver damage. In about 15% of all cases, HCV causes cirrhosis and liver cancer. There are more than 8,000 Americans that die from these HCV side effects each year.

In 1997, the NIH recommended that public health centers not treat those HCV patients who had an existing drug problem, unless they had gone six months without illegal drug use. European and Canadian health centers followed suit, leaving many drug users to suffer from the virus's wrath.

Seal, MD, who notes that smokers are treated for emphysema and obese people are given new hearts, says drug users should also be given treatment for HCV. She says that many people with drug problems do not have adequate rehabilitation resources. She also states that re-infection rates could be significantly decreased if clean needle programs were in place.

On the other side of the debate, two researchers from the University of Florida said that drugs and alcohol have been reported to suppress the effects of interferon drugs used to treat the viral disease. The Florida public health experts said that interferons, which are the body's natural virus-fighting agents, do not function as well when a person is using drugs. Interferon treatment can also cause depression. Giving these drugs to people who already have substance abuse problems could push them to psychiatric disorders, they reported.

In the meantime, pharmaceutical companies are fighting to produce the first HCV vaccine. Chrion is in the early stages of developing the first vaccine, while reportedly 20 others are also working on medicines to treat the disease.

Current manufacturers of interferon treatments include Roche, Schering-Plough, Biogen, and Amgen. This therapy is effective 40-60% of the time. Combining interferons with ribavirin can increase the rate of success by tricking the virus into reproducing defective copies of itself.

Interferons are also difficult to administer. They are given by injection several times a week to fight the disease, during a four-to-six month period.

Officials in the healthcare community are also expecting an increase of HCV patients once the baby boomer generation retires. Doctors warn there are people who may have used intravenous drugs once in the 1960s and have been unknowingly infected since.

These drugs and treatment options remain off the market for those drug users receiving medical aid through federally funded healthcare systems.

Seal, in the meantime, will continue to fight for those in need.

Source: www.sfgate.com