Sask. doctor concerned about 'shockingly low' number of hepatitis C patients being treated

An infectious disease specialist in Regina worries not enough people know about a new type of medication that can effectively cure hepatitis C in six months.

This spring, the province expanded coverage for new drugs that have a 95% cure rate

Hepatitis C can be spread by sharing needles, personal care items, piercing equipment and having unprotected sex. (CBC)

An infectious disease specialist in Regina is trying to raise awareness about the availability of drugs that have a 95 per cent cure rate for hepatitis C.

Dr. Alex Wong, who works for the Regina Qu'Appelle Health Region, said to his knowledge there is no official number for how many people are living with the disease in Saskatchewan, but he estimates the number at anywhere from 15,000 up to 25,000. 

Until recently, treatment for the disease involved taking a combination of shots and pills  for 24-48 weeks that came with a number of side effects.

But this spring, provinces across Canada expanded coverage for six new drugs that can effectively cure the disease in eight to 12 weeks time. 

The coverage took effect in the province April 1. Before some of the drugs became publicly funded, Wong said, they cost upwards of $50,000 to $60,000 for a12-week course. That cost has been knocked down to several hundred dollars.

"Virtually everybody now with hepatitis C with very minimal exceptions can be treated with a pill a day for 12 weeks," Wong said during an interview with CBC-Radio's Afternoon Edition on Friday, which was world hepatitis C Day. 

"It's an exciting time in the field of hepatitis C. There's new medications that are available now that weren't available even just two, three, fours years ago, which work dramatically better."

'Shocking' low number being treated

According to Wong, only 350 prescriptions were written for people with hepatitis C in 2016. 

"That is a shockingly low number for a province that has such a high incidence rate of hepatitis C," he said.

"If we only treat 350 people a year, the number of new infections in the province almost assuredly will be higher than that, so we'll never actually get to a point where we're actually bringing the prevalence  down and actually getting to a point where we can actually talk about eliminating hepatitis C by 2030, which is the World Health Organization's' stated goal."

Wong said he's concerned there is a lack of clinicians, support staff and resources for people to be able to access these medications.

He also wonders whether people suffering hepatitis C still have a negative perception of the medications because of the its reputation for side effects.

Viral disease affects liver

According to the Ministry of Health, 144 prescriptions were written from April to June of this year, which is after coverage was expanded for the new medications. 

Hepatitis C is a viral disease that affects the liver. It's normally transmitted through contact with the blood of an infected person, and can cause liver scarring and liver cancer.

Wong said it is most commonly spread through intravenous drug use and sharing paraphernalia such as needles. 

With files from CBC-Radio's Afternoon Edition