Hepatitis C drugs show promise, but price is too high for most patients
Published Sunday, May 25, 2014 10:03PM EDT
New drugs to treat hepatitis C are showing promising results, but their price is putting them out of reach for many Canadians in need.
The anti-viral drugs are offering incredible results after just three months of treatment, but each pill costs about $650 – a price most Canadians simply can't afford.
Dr. Curtis Cooper, director of the viral hepatitis program at the Ottawa Hospital, said the drugs Sovaldi and Galexos offer a revolution for patients with the hepatitis C virus (HCV).
"It only requires 12 weeks of treatment and (they) are producing cure rates of 90 to even 100 per cent," he told CTV News.
The drugs appear to be working for Donna Hess, who was recently diagnosed with hepatitis C after a lengthy career in nursing.
She said that since taking the drugs, her viral load has gone from mid-range levels to practically undetectable.
"It is working fabulously, I have no side effects, I'm training to run in my first marathon," she said.
Hess's private insurance is paying for her drugs. But because the medication is so new and so expensive, none of the provincial health insurance plans are covering the cost for patients who can't afford them.
Hess said that everybody should have a chance to access the drugs. "I think that it's only fair that we all get the same treatment," she said.
In an email to CTV News, Gilead, the makers of Sovaldi, said that the price of the drug reflects its value.
"Sovaldi-containing regimens represent a cure – they reduce the total treatment costs for HCV, taking into account the cost of medications (including those for side effects or complications) and healthcare visits, and the cost of management of patients with subsequent more advanced liver disease," the company said.
"While Sovaldi greatly enahances the standard of care, it was priced such that the total regimen cost is similar to prior standard of care regimens."
Brenda Peever, 59, contracted hepatitis C through a blood transfusion she received nearly 40 years ago. She now has late-stage liver cirrhosis.
Peever doesn't sugar-coat her reality: "I am stage 4, the next step is death," she said. "It's not fair to my family, my grandchildren and it's hard to deal with."
Last February, Peever's family launched a petition on her behalf, calling on the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technology in Health (CADTH) to "prioritize" its review of Sovaldi and Galexos.
The CADTH reviews newly approved drugs and makes coverage recommendations to public and private health insurance plans.
The petition also calls on Ontario's Ministry of Health and Gilead to "compassionately" provide the treatment to patients like Peever, who may die before the drugs are approved for coverage under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.It has collected more than 65,000 signaturesto date.
Cooper said if Peever had access to the drug it could change her life.
"We're talking about curative therapies, which could potentially save her from liver failure, save her from liver cancer," he said.
A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology examined the prevalence of HCV in Canada, as well as the associated costs.
The study, which received funding from Gilead Sciences Canada, found that while the prevalence of HCV is declining in Canada, the prevalence of advanced liver disease is projected to increase until 2035, as the infected population ages.
The total healthcare costs associated with HCV, not including treatment, are expected to increase by 60 per cent between 2013 and 2032. The lifetime cost for a hypothetical male with HCV infection in 2013 was estimated to be $64,694, according to the study.
The study's authors estimate that more than 32,000 hepatitis C-infected patients will die of liver-related causes between 2013 and 2035. They estimate that premature death will be substantial with patients only living to an average age of 68 years, compared with an average life expectancy in Canada of 81.
With a report from CTV News' Medical Correspondent Avis Favaro and Senior Producer Elizabeth St. Philip