The issue with veterans having the disease is that few of them have been diagnosed because they may not have any symptoms. To that end, officials with veterans organizations are urging all Vietnam-era veterans to be tested.
The concern over veterans was the impetus for a community program held Tuesday at the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives. The meeting was organized by Jim Sherlock with the Montgomery-based Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 607.
Sherlock said he's set up many similar meetings across the country in an effort to inform the public about veterans health issues. He developed a list of 12 different veteran health concerns and hepatitis C was on that list. He was then able to arrange a 15-minute meeting with Gilead Sciences, the maker of sofosbuvir. The drug, marketed under the names of Sovaldi and Harvoni, is becoming more commonly used in fighting hepatitis C.
Sherlock said the 15-minute meeting turned into a two-hour meeting with the company's top executives. From that meeting, he said, the company pledged its support to help the country's veterans.
The San Francisco-based company had taken its share of criticism by charging exorbitant prices for its medication. Prior to this year, the Veterans Affairs Department could only treat the very sickest patients because one dose of hepatitis C medication could run between $1,000 and $1,400 per pill. The total cost of treatment could reach or exceed $84,000.
On March 9, VA officials announced it would treat the 174,000 veterans in its health system who had been diagnosed with the disease, regardless of the stage of the disease.
How its spread
The precise reason why so many Vietnam-era veterans contracted hepatitis C is unknown, but some experts place the blame on the jet gun method of administering vaccinations to enlisted men during the war. Because the same gun would be used to perform countless vaccinations, tainted blood could be transferred from one soldier to another.
Soldiers and veterans may have also gotten hepatitis C from blood transfusions. Prior to July 1992, blood received at blood banks was not screened for viral hepatitis.
The disease can also be spread through sharing drug needles, unsanitary tattoo practices and through sharing hygiene products like toothbrushes and razors. It cannot be spread through saliva or skin-to-skin contact. It is primarily spread through blood exposure.
The disease attacks the liver and symptoms aren't always obvious. The most common symptoms are mild fatigue and joint pain. If left undetected, hepatitis can cause cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure and even liver cancer.
Veteran Joe Benko isn't sure how he contracted hepatitis C, but he was diagnosed with the disease in 1990 at age 39. Like other veterans, he had been inoculated with a jet gun.
“I felt lonely and depressed, not knowing how long I was living with the disease and what damage it had done to my liver,” he told those in attendance Tuesday.
Benko opted to try a holistic approach to treat the disease, but his condition did not improve. He agreed to join a clinical trial at a hospital after some urging from a neighbor, who is also a physician.
“After completing the trial, there was no evidence of hepatitis C; it was gone,” he said.
Benko was tested again three months later and doctors again found no trace of hepatitis C in his liver.
“I was officially cured,” he said. “Getting that news was the most incredible gift I could ever receive.”
Benko did not specifically say what drug he received in the clinical study, but said it was in a pill form and produced no ill side effects. Prior to the development of once-a-day pill treatments, the course of treatment was often Interferons, which could make patients feel even worse.
A cure did not come soon enough for Michael Blackburn, a Vietnam veteran who lost his battle with liver failure in 2015. His widow, Pam Blackburn, was at Tuesday's meeting to speak about her husband's story and also voice concerns about the cost of treatment.
In the case of her husband, she said, he would have been prescribed Sovaldi and ribavirin because of his genotype. Taking two pills as opposed to one increases the cost of treatment.
“Those doctors at the VA hospital are given orders, but those only go so far,” she said. “When you're on a (treatment) list, it becomes a business decision.”
Jeff Sims, a community specialist with Gilead, said Sovaldi and Harvoni are not side effect-free for everyone, but added the risk is very low. He also told those in attendance that he was not at Tuesday's meeting to necessary push Gilead Sciences' products, but to instead educate veterans about the risks of hepatitis C.
“I don't want you going to (your doctor) and asking for our products. I don't want to add to any confusion by recommending a certain product,” he said. “I just want people to get screened and go to the doctor.”