Never in the history of medicine has a curable chronic infectious disease causing so many deaths been so ignored by government. Hepatitis C infects more than 80,000 Oklahomans and often leads to end-stage liver disease requiring liver transplantation or to liver cancer. Deaths due to hepatitis C are underreported and it is likely at least one Oklahoman is dying every day from the consequences of this infection. The majority of those infected are not in the drug culture, but rather everyday citizens. The most famous Oklahoman to die from hepatitis C was Mickey Mantle.
What is shameful here is that hepatitis C can be cured 50 percent of the time with one-year treatment with peginterferon and ribavirin. "Cure” is a real term as the first patients who cleared virus in interferon trials 25 years ago have remained undetectable for virus. When patients are cured, they feel dramatically better, their health care costs plummet and their risk of liver cancer drops dramatically. Last year, the state of Oklahoma spent $40,000 for all purposes against hepatitis C. The federal government gave $80,000 to support a hepatitis C control nurse at the state Health Department. In contrast, for a noncurable viral illness, HIV, which has one-quarter the number of patients of hepatitis C, the state spent $1.6 million that was matched with about $3.5 million by the federal government. Very few providers are available who are willing and able to treat hepatitis C because of the low financial reimbursement from insurance companies and the associated liver disease that often complicates their management. Oklahoma is one of the few states that doesn't have a clinic devoted to the treatment of hepatitis C. The finances of such a clinic are tenuous and good planning envisions a partnership of commercial insurance, public health and legislative support. What can an interested person do? There is a supplemental $1 million appropriation item in the public health appropriations bill in the current legislative session to assist in the opening of the aforementioned hepatitis C clinic.
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