April 23, 2017
The Fight Against Hepatitis C
New therapy options help patients live longer
By MARC STEWART
Twenty years ago a Hepatitis C diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence because there was no cure. While a complete cure remains elusive, advances in medicine can make the virus virtually undetectable in the blood, said Natalie Brulotte, a nurse practitioner at Heritage Health.
“There is a functional cure today,” said Brulotte, FNP-BC. “We treat the viral load with vastly improved drug therapies. Scarring of the liver goes from bad to moderate or mild with treatment.” That stigma of the virus lingers to this day. Healthcare professionals are hoping to change perceptions and help people with the disease.
“We’re opening up a treatment plan for Hepatitis C for people who are not able to see a specialist due to financial barriers,” Brulotte said. “There have been so many significant improvements in treatment over the last five years. Patients can live longer, healthier lives...” The virus is spread by contact with contaminated blood, for example, from sharing needles or from unsterile tattoo equipment. The first step is testing, as most people don’t display symptoms, said Brulotte.
“Between 45 percent and 85 percent of those patients with hepatitis C have it and don’t know it,” said Brulotte. “If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you are five times more likely to have the disease than any other demographic group.” Half of that group has no risk factors, either, said Brulotte. “If you had blood transfusions before 1992, any homemade tattoos or any IV drug use, you should get tested.”
Individuals who do develop symptoms may suffer from fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, and yellowing of the eyes and skin. The virus can ravage the liver. Getting tested is the first step in Heritage Health’s new treatment strategy it is unveiling this spring. A simple Hepatitis C antibody blood test can show if a person has the virus.
Once a person has been diagnosed, they typically are put on medications that fight the virus. The drug treatments improve quality of life while reducing long-term health care issues and costs, said Brulotte. “The drug therapies are 90 percent effective and they’re easier to tolerate,” she said. “You take oral medication instead of a shot. That is a big improvement for people.”