The drug, Epclusa, was approved earlier this week by the federal health agency to much fanfare from doctors across the country. The drug, which has shown to eliminate all strains of hepatitis C from the body, is to be taken once daily for 12 weeks, which according to The Canadian Press comes at a cost of $60,000 per round.
But locally, the excitement is tempered among concerns about access to the medication.
It is suspected in Thunder Bay at least one in every 50 people, as many has 3,000, are infected with hepatitis C. Those numbers are among the highest in Ontario and are on the rise, with as many as 200 new reported annual cases for each of the last few years.
Eric Shih, Elevate NWO director of education and community development, said hepatitis C medications are not automatically covered by Ministry of Health and that patients have to apply to the province or private insurance companies to pay for the treatment.
“The reality is it’s not really an issue of the medications or technologies. A lot of the problems are access,” Shih said, adding there is currently a five-month backlog of approved applications. “Even though this is coming online, it doesn’t necessarily speed up how quickly people have access to the medication and treatments.”
Hepatitis C is transferred through blood to blood contact, now most commonly as a result of common needles and particularly impacts street drug users, correctional facility inmates and the poverty-stricken and homeless communities.
Cases had also become prevalent of patients receiving contaminated blood transfusions prior to 1992 when testing wasn’t rigorous, or people coming into contact with poorly sterilized medical or tattoo equipment.
For many people, they can live with the disease for years before symptoms become apparent.
The costs and lack of access to the drugs have forced a prioritization of treatment.
“It’s not as simple as being diagnosed with (hepatitis) C,” Shih said. “(Hepatitis) C is one of the few illnesses where you actually have to get sicker before you’re eligible for treatment. Your liver has to have a certain amount of damage before you’re even eligible to be treated.”
The waiting for treatment takes a toll on people who want to tackle the disease, which is a leading cause of liver transplants, before it progresses.
“It’s really difficult for them,” he said. “People who work through then they’ve got to get on the wait list. It’s upwards of half a year. This is really hard if you really want to do something about it and just learned (you have it).”
Because the disease can be present without symptoms, Shih advises people to get tested if they have any suspicion they might be infected.
Elevate NWO is recognizing World Hepatitis Week with an information session on July 26 at their new location on Cumberland Street.