New drug gives hope to hepatitis C sufferers

Chris Robinson hopes more people become aware of the disease

Chris Robinson was tired but didn’t think much of it.

It wasn’t until he woke up one morning with his stomach bloated that he decided he needed to see a doctor.

“My stomach swelled up to the point where it looked like I could have swallowed a small elephant,” he said.

Robinson, who worked all his life as a roofer, was shocked at the diagnosis: hepatitis C.

The disease, which is transmitted through blood, affects the liver, causing fibrosis, cirrhosis and eventually, without transplant, liver failure and death.

“People see me and they say, you don’t look sick,” Robinson said.

He takes medication for his heart as well as blood thinners, has swelling in his stomach and is constantly tired. Carrying a few bags of groceries to his apartment nearly causes him to faint.

“The smallest thing tires me out,” he said.

He currently is not on treatment for hepatitis C, which involves a dual cocktail of drugs, because his doctor feared they may do more damage to his liver.

As he began to despair, his doctor told him to be patient – a new drug was finishing clinical trials that could help his disease.

Robinson feared the side effects and asked what it would do to him.

“It’s going to cure you, man,” Robinson said his doctor told him.

Victrelis, or the generic term boceprevir, was approved for use in Canada and, combined with traditional treatment of antiviral medication (peginterferon alpha and ribavirin), can double or nearly triple cure rates in patients.

“This is what he’s been waiting for,” Robinson said.

Hepatitis C infection can be acute (lasting up to six months), or chronic (longer than six months). Between 10 and 30 per cent of people with acute illness are able to fight it off without treatment. The rest will go on to become chronic carriers of the disease.

Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, reduced appetite, stomach pain, dark urine, jaundice (yellowing of skin or eyes), nausea and vomiting, aching muscles and joints, poor concentration, anxiety and depression.

Dr. Alnoor Ramji, clinical assistant professor at University of British Columbia, said the new drug is more effective in eradicating the virus and can reduce the duration of treatment from 48 to 28 weeks.

“It’s a very specific anti-viral agent,” he said.

More than 250,000 Canadians are affected by hepatitis C, with 60,000 residing in B.C. Of those, 70 per cent have type 1, which is what the new drug specifically targets.

“It’s really quite amazing when you look at the numbers,” Ramji said, adding that hepatitis C is the leading factor in liver damage and subsequent transplant.

The disease is often spread through intravenous drug use, blood transfusions prior to 1992, medical procedures using unscreened blood, mother-child transmission, or contact with infected needles.

Robinson isn’t positive how he contracted the disease, but suspects it was through casual drug use and sharing needles in his youth.

“It was a mistake and we all make them,” Robinson said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

He lives in Abbotsford now but he came to Nanaimo in the 1990s to treat alcohol and drug addition. After three months of treatment, he stayed in Nanaimo and stayed clean, until a brief relapse after moving to Vancouver several years later.

The birth of his son finally got him on the clean and sober path more than a decade ago.

By talking about his struggle with hepatitis C he hopes  more people become aware of the disease and be more careful about their choices in life.

“I never realized no one knew anything about this,” he said. “They know more about AIDS than hepatitis C.”

The new drug has been approved by Health Canada and is being made available to priority access patients. Widespread availability and coverage under provincial prescription drug plans is expected next year.