Late last month, a district court ruled that the Colorado prison system must pay for hepatitis C treatment for inmates who are affected by the chronic liver disease. Four inmates had sued, claiming that the prison system’s requirement that they undergo drug or alcohol treatment was unlawful. The ACLU announced that according to a settlement, $41 million would be set aside for treatment over the next two years.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a chronic disease of the liver, caused by the hepatitis C virus. It results in inflammation that can lead to scarring (called cirrhosis) and liver failure. Without successful treatment or a liver transplant, liver failure is fatal.
Is hepatitis C curable?
Increasingly, yes. For decades, the only treatments for hepatitis C were interferon and an early antiviral drug called ribarvin. A course of treatment took a year, caused flulike side effects, and was only successful in clearing the virus about 50 percent of the time.
Modern antiviral drugs, or direct-acting antivirals (DDAs), have fewer side effects, a shorter treatment span (two to three months) and a higher success rate (from 80 to 100 percent). They are changing the view of hepatitis C as a debilitating progressive disease into something that’s still serious but treatable.
The drugs are increasingly covered by insurance. They are covered by Medicare Part D and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Is hepatitis C contagious?
Yes, hepatitis C is contagious. But potential contagion wasn’t the issue behind the Colorado inmates’ lawsuit — hepatitis C is not transmittable by casual contact, so it’s not an issue within enclosed spaces such as those in a prison.
How is hepatitis C transmitted?
Hepatitis C is spread by blood-to-blood contact, such as sharing needles to inject IV drugs, sharing a razor or toothbrush, or having sex with someone with the virus. It is not spread through food, water, saliva, sneezing or coughing.
You’ll occasionally see a news story about a restaurant that has been closed because a worker contracted hepatitis and is advising customers to be tested if they have symptoms. That is hepatitis A, which is caused by a virus that’s more easily spread, such as when a restaurant worker doesn’t wash their hands after using the restroom. Hepatitis B is spread via blood and semen and is most often transmitted through sexual contact. Both hepatitis A and B are less serious forms of the disease, although their symptoms can last for months and, in some cases, can cause liver damage. There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but not for hepatitis C.