Altoona, Blair County, Pa. - A local man is alive today thanks to new treatments for a potential deadly disease. He hopes his story leads to more people getting help for a virus estimated to affect millions of Americans.
About two years ago, we introduced you to a Bedford County man with hepatitis C, a debilitating virus which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Mike Miller couldn't get a new drug to cure the disease, because it was in the early stages and he had no liver scarring.
Mike was one of about 100 hep c patients at blair gastroenterology, whose insurance wouldn't pay for the expensive medication.
"I slept a lot. I didn't have any energy. I hardly did any of the things that I would do on a normal day to day basis," he remembers.
Dr. Ralph McKibbin says, "Two out of tree people with hep C go on to cirrhosis and eventually liver cancer and transplant . As a symptomatic patient he was highest risk for that , so I'd say it was almost a certainly."
But Blair Gastro, and especially nurse, Karen Brandt kept filing appeals with Mike's insurer and pleading with the manufacturer of a hepatitis C treatment. Within a couple of months, the drug company promised free treatments for Mike and two other hep C patients.
"Treatment is cure," Dr. McKibbin says. "The virus no longer exists and you don't have it anymore." Mike's therapy took twelve weeks. Since then, follow up blood tests show no evidence of hep C..
Now, Mike says, "I feel really well. I feel better. I feel cured and I can do the things I used to do and keep on going."
More medications have been approved since Mike's diagnosis and prices have dropped by about 25 percent, according to Dr. McKibbin. He says it's a little easier to get treatment approved, but patients without liver scarring still face obstacles.
Those more likely to be eligible for coverage are baby boomers,
"Seventy-seven percent of all hepatitis C is in baby boomers, so that's the biggest bulk, and they've had the disease for some time, and many of them have scarring fibrosis and even cirrhosis without knowing," McKibbin says.
The CDC actually recommends hepatitis C testing for all baby boomers. The virus is transferred through blood and many in this generation received transfusions, injections, or had blood drawn, before universal precautions for blood handling were adopted.
Dr. McKibbin says,"Many people who got it got it from innocent activities, getting a tattoo or skin art, a piercing, some contact over the years that was incidental. It is not equivalent and does not equal drug use and abuse." the doctor adds.
He and Mike say the main point is not how you may have gotten hep C, but that it's curable
And as Mike says, "Knowing and getting treated could be one of the most important things in your life."
Friday, May 19th is National Hepatitis Antibody Testing Day and Karen Brandt from Blair Gastro will be at the Altoona Curve game with of information on hepatitis.
Also, just this week, the Wolf administration announced that in July, it will begin to expand hep C medication coverage for Medicaid patients. That will mean that more people can get treatment for the virus, before their disease becomes severe.