While hepatitis C may have been a death sentence a generation ago, a potential cure is already giving some patients a new lease on life.
Vicki Martinez knows the destructive capabilities of hepatitis C firsthand.
The 57-year-old San Antonian found out she was infected with the virus after a blood test three years ago, but she never showed any symptoms.
“It floored me because my mother passed away from hepatitis C,” she said. “I saw the ugly side of what hepatitis can do.”
Her mother likely contracted hepatitis during a series of blood transfusions 20 years ago, long before it was routinely tested for in blood and organ donors. Because hepatitis C rarely presents any symptoms until it begins to destroy the liver, Martinez’s mother was for a long time unaware of the infection. She was given six months to live after it was discovered.
Until this year, Martinez was one of the estimated 3.2 million Americans living with hepatitis C. The virus kills more people every year than HIV. And like so many others, she wasn’t aware of her infection until her doctors discovered something wrong during a routine blood test.
Happily, Martinez has since been cured. On June 28—the day before her 57th birthday—Martinez was told she had been cured by a new drug regimen hailed as the first to successfully eliminate a viral disease.
“I didn’t know there were cures for hepatitis C,” Martinez said. “It was incredible, considering what my mom went through. It was a death sentence.”
Martinez was part of a clinical trial for the drug sofosbuvir, a new treatment from Gilead Sciences that is expected to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) soon.
A recent phase II study found that a combination of sofosbuvir and simeprevir cleared the virus in 90 percent of the 197 patients with hepatitis C who were tested.
Martinez and other patients in the study had not responded to interferon, the injection-based current standard of treatment. Interferon can cause severe unwanted side effects, including depression, nausea, and lethargy.
Other new drug candidates, including simeprevir from Johnson & Johnson, and daclatasvir and asunaprevir from Bristol-Myers Squibb, can also allegedly cure 80 to 90 percent of patients through 12 weeks of treatment.
Dr. Kris Kowdley, director of the Liver Center of Excellence and the Digestive Disease Institute at Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center, said these emerging therapies could break the “backbone of interferon” currently used to treat the disease.
In the 1990s, drugs on the market were only able to help 10 percent of all hepatitis patients, at most. In 2002, the rate was 40 percent. Within a year, Kowdley said, hepatitis patients may be treated and cured using an all-oral drug regimen more quickly and with fewer side effects.
“There’s literally a revolution occurring right now in the world of hepatitis C,” he said. “The response rates have improved drastically.”
Kowdley said that with new, highly effective treatments, a vaccine for hepatitis C may not be necessary.
“We do have the capabilities within our grasp to completely eliminate this virus from the planet,” he said.
Martinez recommends that everyone get tested for hepatitis C.
“Care about yourself,” she said. “You’re worth it.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommend that all baby boomers undergo a one-time hepatitis screening, because the majority of new diagnoses are in patients born between 1945 and 1965.
“We grew up in a different age. In the 60s and 70s, things were easier and more carefree, especially sexually,” Martinez said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
Kowdley said a lack of symptoms shouldn’t prevent people from getting tested for the virus. “People should feel empowered to request testing,” he said.
Now that Martinez’s children are grown and she isn’t carrying deadly virus that ended her mother’s life, she’s embracing her situation. She takes regular trips with her girlfriends and better care of herself.
“I’ve got a new attitude,” she said. “I’m doing more things to make me happy.”