Teeters was among the first patients to receive a new treatment for hepatitis C at the Center for Liver and Hepatobiliary Disease at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, where she was treated by liver specialists Richard Manch, MD, and nurse practitioner Ann Moore. The Center is believed to be one of the only liver programs in Arizona specializing in the early treatment of the disease.
“Hepatitis C is one of the few chronic diseases that is curable, but because it is fairly asymptomatic until the later stages, many people don’t know that they have it,” says Dr. Manch. “While many liver specialists focus on the treatment of end-stage liver disease, our focus at St. Joseph’s is on the education, diagnosis and treatment of early hepatitis C to help prevent more serious complications in the future.”
Hepatitis C is caused by the hepatitis C virus. If left untreated, it can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis and liver cancer, as well as kidney disease, arthritis and other serious disorders. Symptoms include fever, fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain and nausea. While the virus is contagious, it is only spread through blood; for example, when sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs. Also, blood transfusions that took place prior to 1992 may have been contaminated with the virus.
Teeters believes she contracted hepatitis C during a blood transfusion in her twenties, but wasn’t diagnosed until two decades later while being treated for another condition. Her main symptom was a lack of energy, which persisted another 20 years until she underwent treatment. “When I was first diagnosed, the successful cure rate for hepatitis C was only about 15 percent. The treatment is intense and I didn’t want to go through it if it wasn’t going to be worth it,” says Judy. “Once the success rate improved, I was ready to try it.”
Individuals like Teeters are the reason for a recent Centers for Disease Control campaign that encourages baby boomers – those born between 1945 and 1965 – to get tested for hepatitis C. Individuals in this age demographic are more than five times likely than other adults to be infected, and 75 percent of adults with the disease were born in this time period.
Until recently, treatment for most patients with hepatitis C was only marginally effective. In fact, Teeter’s first treatment in 2007 was unsuccessful. But in 2011, a new treatment regimen – a therapy consisting of a pegylated interferon, ribavirin and a new protease inhibitor – was approved by the FDA. In August 2012, within 48 weeks of treatment, she was declared virus free and immune to hepatitis C. While she is still being treated for liver cirrhosis caused by the virus, her chances of developing further complications or needing a liver transplant in the future are drastically reduced.
“The treatment success rate for hepatitis C increased from 45 percent to 79 percent with the addition of the protease inhibitor, which is the first drug to directly attack the virus versus stimulating the immune system to attack the virus,” says Ann Moore, FNP. “It’s an exciting time in this field because there are many new hepatitis C drugs on the horizon that will likely be even more effective.”
The Center intends on offering clinical trials for groundbreaking hepatitis C drugs in the near future.
The Center also places a heavy emphasis on education into the prevention, diagnosis and early treatment of hepatitis C, offering a grant-supported program that trains primary care physicians at rural clinics throughout the state through in-person site visits and weekly teleconferences. “There are an estimated 5 million Americans living with hepatitis C and two-thirds of them don’t even know they have it,” says Moore. “If we can increase awareness among our community members and rural healthcare providers, we can help a lot of people get treatment before the disease has caused irreversible damage.”