An ambitious new report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine lays out a detailed path by which some 90,000 deaths from hepatitis B and C infection could be prevented by 2030.
The National Academies, a group of nongovernmental advisory bodies that includes the former Institute of Medicine, said that “the tools to prevent these deaths” exist – namely vaccination to prevent new hepatitis B infections and antiviral drugs, including new oral medications that can cure chronic hepatitis C infections within months.
The authors of the 200-plus-page report, led by Brian Strom, MD, MPH, of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, calculate that deaths from hepatitis B infection could be halved by 2030 if 90% of patients are diagnosed, if 90% of those diagnosed are connected to care, and if 80% of those for whom treatment is indicated receive it. Treating everyone with chronic hepatitis C would reduce new infections by 90% by 2030, while reducing related deaths by 65%, Dr. Strom and his colleagues estimate.
But the authors also concede that drastic changes to current health policy would be required to reach these goals. These include the adoption of “aggressive testing, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention methods, such as needle exchange.”
They propose that the federal government seek a unique licensing arrangement with one or more manufacturers to bring down the notoriously high cost of direct-acting drugs used in hepatitis C, as a way of raising treatment rates. Currently, fewer than half the patients on Medicaid who are eligible for hepatitis C treatment receive it, and fewer than 1% of prisoners, who have high rates of infection.
Dr. Joseph Lim, director of the viral hepatitis program at Yale University in New Haven. Conn., who was not involved in the National Academies report, called it helpful in the sense that “it casts a spotlight on something that those of us involved in the care of people with viral hepatitis have long known – which is that this is a national and global public health burden that has been under the radar and in the shadow of other important health priorities.”
Both hepatitis B and C increase the risk of liver cancer and are associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Though approximately 4 million people in the United States are estimated to be infected with chronic hepatitis B (1.3 million) or C (2.7 million), these diseases account for less than 1% of the research budget at the National Institutes of Health, the report said. This compares unfavorably to funding for HIV, which affects about 1 million Americans.
As the report states, the tools to radically reduce hepatitis B and C deaths already exist. However, Dr. Lim cautioned in an interview, “the public health infrastructure to address viral hepatitis has been woefully inadequate.” In the United States, he noted, most states receive federal funding for at most a single person in charge of viral hepatitis epidemiology. “The resources currently available are in no way adequate to achieve the very aggressive goals described in the report,” he said.
Even among people with a known diagnosis of hepatitis B or C, only some receive confirmatory testing, Dr. Lim said. And of those with confirmed infections, “only a fraction are linked to care from the diagnosing clinician to a provider with the capacity to assess the state of liver disease and determine whether antiviral therapy is warranted.” Finally, he said, “many patients continue to face barriers to curative therapy due to cost and restrictions by public and private payers.”
Among the recommendations contained in the report is that unrestricted, mass treatment of hepatitis C infections be undertaken – regardless of disease stage. Currently, direct-acting antiviral agents remain costly and are poorly covered, notably by Medicaid. The National Academies advise that the government rectify this by purchasing “a license or assignment to the patent on a direct-acting antiviral drug, and use it only in those market segments where the government pays for treatment and access is now limited, such as Medicaid and prisons.”
Dr. Lim called the licensing proposal “very novel and bold,” but noted that there is no precedent in the United States for diseases such as hepatitis C. “If it could be done it would be an incredible model of government-pharma partnership for the public health good, and have a very significant impact.”
Steven Flamm, MD, chief of the liver transplantation program at Northwestern University in Chicago, who like Dr. Lim was not involved in the creation of the report, said in an interview that it contained innovative ideas and helped underscore the fact that “hepatitis has been given short shrift. The NIH and other agencies do not devote time and energy to this particular medical issue for reasons that are not completely clear.”
But “the problem with these kinds of analyses,” he said, “is that carrying them out is harder than making the recommendations.”
Dr. Flamm echoed Dr. Lim’s concerns about the practicability of implementing some of the recommendations in what he considers a resource-deprived health care environment for viral hepatitis.
“Is elimination possible or can you take a big bite out of it? The answer to that question is yes. We now have agents that can treat chronic viral hepatitis well, which we didn’t have a few years ago.”
Still, he emphasized, having the tools is only one part of the picture. Hepatitis C diagnostic tests have been available since the early 1990s. Yet, Dr. Flamm pointed out, fewer than half of patients have been diagnosed. “If the new CDC screening guidelines gain traction, we will do better than that.”
Dr. Flamm said that he considered the report’s call for a unique government licensing agreement for hepatitis C drugs a tall order. The drugs are already heavily discounted by manufacturers in many cases, he said, yet remain unavailable to those in need of them. In Illinois, Dr. Flamm said, few Medicaid patients with confirmed hepatitis C are given the short-acting antivirals that have revolutionized treatment. “The vast majority have no access to the therapy at all,” he said.
One of the report’s strengths, he said, is in detailing innovative prevention strategies such as delivering and promoting hepatitis B vaccinations to adults through local pharmacies, after the model of influenza vaccinations, and also conducting needle exchanges through pharmacies for intravenous drug users, who are at high risk of contracting both hepatitis B and C.
“Many of these strategies are not very costly,” he said. “The problem is you run into moral platitudes – to eliminate hepatitis, we will have to overcome that,” Dr. Flamm said, something that cannot be taken for granted in the current political environment.
But even if the goals outlined in the report seem ambitious, its authors have done an important service in underscoring the burden of viral hepatitis and laying out how some barriers to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment might be broken, he said.
Viral hepatitis “is a big deal, and it does cost a tremendous amount of money,” he added. “Everybody focuses on the therapeutic cost, but nobody focuses on the costs, direct and indirect, of all the sick people that are out there.”