At The Crossroads: The Rise Of Hepatitis C And The Fight To Stop It

A new series from Rhode Island Public Radio.

About the series:
Hepatitis C infects an estimated five million Americans, though most of them don’t know it. But deaths from hepatitis C are on the rise in baby boomers. And throughout New England, new infections are creeping up among a younger generation. Less than a year ago, their only options for treatment were complicated regimens of injections that didn’t always lead to a cure. But brand new drugs could change everything. That is, if the cost doesn’t break us.

Acknowledgments
This series was produced by Kristin Gourlay, and edited by Catherine Welch, as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Support for health care reporting on Rhode Island Public Radio also comes from the Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island's only community foundation.

Jake Harper produced the infographics for "At the Crossroads."

Hepatitis C Resources

It's sinister, this virus: hepatitis C can live in the body for decades before causing any noticeable symptoms. By then, the symptoms could be serious: at the worst, cirrhosis or liver cancer. Most people who have hepatitis C don't know it. In this case, what you don't know can hurt you, or even kill you.

Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

In 2014, hundreds of Rhode Islanders died from accidental drug overdoses.  Thousands more remain addicted to prescription painkillers and heroin. For those who inject the drugs, there’s another risk: hepatitis C.

In the final story in our series “At the Crossroads,” we meet a team of outreach workers determined to find new infections before it’s too late.

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Bringing disease prevention to the streets

Gilead Sciences

Woonsocket-based pharmacy giant CVS has signed a deal with drug maker Gilead to offer its hepatitis C drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni, exclusively, for treating hepatitis C.

The deal covers patients enrolled in drug benefit plans managed by CVS. And the news comes on the heels of AbbVie's announcement of a deal with CVS competitor Express Scripts, which will offer AbbVie's hepatitis C treatment, Viekira Pak, exclusively.

Rhode Island Public Health Association / Rhode Island Department of Health

A couple of years ago, I read an issue brief written by Brad Brockmann with the Rhode Island Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. The brief, called "Hepatitis C: Threat and Opportunity," depicted the number of HIV cases against the number of Hepatitis C cases in Rhode Island in 2007 - 2008 in a bar graph. The bar for the number of hep C cases was much, much higher.

Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Rhode Island’s prisons are grappling with a dilemma. Hundreds of inmates have hepatitis C. New drugs can cure it. But they’re so expensive the department of corrections can’t afford them for every inmate who’s sick.

In this next part of our series “At the Crossroads,” a look at how prison officials decide who gets treated first.

No surprise here: the Philadelphia Transportation Authority is suing Gilead, maker of the expensive new hepatitis C drugs Sovaldi and Harvoni, over the cost of those drugs. A course of Sovaldi, not including drugs you might have to take in combination with it, as some patients do, costs $84,000. Harvoni, which won FDA approval more recently, costs $94,000.

According to the Philadelphia Star Tribune:

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