Health experts recommend boomers test for hepatitis C

JR Ortega By JR Ortega

June 8, 2012 at 1:08 a.m.
Updated June 9, 2012 at 1:09 a.m.

Debbie DeFord explains the cooler pack she carries around with her that contains her pills and injections to help treat her hepatitis C.

Debbie DeFord explains the cooler pack she carries around with her that contains her pills and injections to help treat her hepatitis C.   JR Ortega for The Victoria Advocate

Growing up, Debbie DeFord had a certain stigma toward hepatitis C.

The virus was reserved for the junkies - the users and abusers - not DeFord, a 51-year-old, high-energy woman from Orange, just outside Beaumont.

DeFord joins the growing number of baby boomers who are at high risk for hepatitis C because of the lack of blood screening in their generation.

For those born between 1945 and 1964, the situation is dire, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at least one Victoria doctor, are doing what they can to spread the word on the importance of testing.

"Unfortunately, it's not a standardized test, and it's a shame," said DeFord, who found out in January she has the virus after visiting Dr. Dharmendra Verma, a gastroenterologist, for another health issue.

In DeFord's case, she contracted it through an injectable asthma medication she took as a child.

The most common ways of contracting the virus were through drug-needle swapping, tattoos, intravenous injections, surgeries, transfusions and accidental needle stick injury, Verma said.

The virus can cause major damage to the liver, through cancer, cirrhosis and liver failure.

"That's why the CDC decided to do this blanket screening for baby boomers," Verma said. "It's a silent disease."

The screening is simple, it's tested during routine blood work.

DeFord travels from Orange, a nearly four-hour drive, just to be under the care of Verma, a doctor she has learned to trust, she said.

Whenever she has questions regarding her treatment, he's only a phone call or text away.

"He cares about his patients so much," she said. "I'd drive six hours if I had to."

The treatment can last up to a year and involves two types of daily oral medication and an injection once a week. She just finished a 12-week cycle with one of the medications.

Already the treatment has dropped her viral count from the millions down to only 25. The treatment costs about $21,000 a month, Verma said. Even then, many people qualify for assistance.

DeFord is paying nothing out of pocket.

"Now they're using the 'cure' word," DeFord said about the treatment. "I'm living proof of this."

The pill, which DeFord calls a super drug, is Incivek, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in May 2011. The drug offers an almost 80 percent cure rate, Verma said.

By 2040, the number of people with hepatitis C will dwindle because of the advanced treatment and screening of all blood.

Once tested negative, the chances of contracting the virus is very slim, unless you are a drug user.

DeFord and Verma would like to see hepatitis C screening during routine blood tests. It's only a matter of time, he said.

"It's a very nasty virus," he said.



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