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Millions of people around the world, about 170 million, are infected with the particularly persistent virus hepatitis C. Relatively rare in northern Europe, the virus infects 0.01 to 0.02 percent of people in the UK, about 1 to 2 percent of people in southern Europe, 6 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, and up to 22 percent of the people of Egypt, where the virus was spread by the use of contaminated blood products. Although the virus can be spread by sexual intercourse, it is more often spread by shared, contaminated needles, both in illicit drug use and in medical settings. About 10 percent of cases occur in healthcare workers who are accidentally exposed.
In the United States, hepatitis C is most commonly a disease of African-Americans aged 20 to 40. These Americans in their younger, active adult lives are beset with a range of hepatitis C symptoms that start as joint pain, dry skin, dry eyes, shooting pains, numbness, and muscle pain and progress to bleeding from the throat, swollen ankles, and mental fuzziness and finally signs of liver disease, such as clubbed fingers, yellowing of the skin and eyes, rashes on the palms of the hands, breast enlargement in men, wasting of muscles, hernia around the belly button, and severe fatigue.
Not everyone who is infected with hepatitis C (also known as HCV) dies from the disease. A few people are able to fight off the infection, and only about one in five develops the symptoms described above. About one in ten develops liver cancer (hepatocarcinoma).
Older Medications For Hepatitis C Work, But Pose Serious Side Effects
Treatment for hepatitis C has been available for over 25 years. An antiviral treatment known as interferon, typically used in combination with a second antiviral drug called ribavarin, usually "knocks out" the infection at least for a few years. The problem with interferon and interferon plus ribavarin has been that the side effects are often considered to be as bad as the disease itself.
Interferon treatment can, and more often than not does, cause:
- Emotional instability.
- Lower white and red blood cell counts.
- Growth of scar tissue in the lungs (interstitial fibrosis).
- Hair loss.
Ribavarin treatment can cause:
- Birth defects in women who become pregnant while on the drug.
- Low red blood cell counts.
The side effects of treatment are so unpleasant that many people with hep C simply give up. However, for two years, there has been a treatment that works for all four strains of the hepatitis C virus and sometimes results in a complete cure in just 12 or 24 weeks.
Solvadi (Sofosbuvir) Works, But Is Prohibitively Expensive
Since the beginning of 2014, Americans and people in most of the world have been able to buy a medication called sofosbuvir, marketed in most of the world as Solvadi. The big advantage of Solvadi is that, although it is used in combination with other drugs, it only has be taken for 12 to 24 weeks, and in about 90 percent of cases (when the infection has already caused cirrhosis of the liver) to about 99 percent of cases (when the infection is an earlier stage) using the drug results in a cure. It is particularly helpful for African, African-American, and Hispanic patients who don't respond well to other treatments. However, the problem with Solvadi is its cost.