Monthly Archives: January 2017

Widening HCV Epidemic in Wisconsin

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

The state of Wisconsin has a Hepatitis C (HCV) problem; one that’s not going away, and is no longer affecting only the Baby Boomer birth cohort. In 2006, 2,355 new cases of HCV were reported by the state; in 2013, that number rose 12% to 2,638; between 2013 and 2015, the number of new HCV infections rose 42% to 3,745 in a span of only two years (Wisconsin Department of Health Services (WI DHS), 2016b).

While the incidence (the number of new cases) seems relatively low, relative to the population, it is important to remember that these numbers represent only the confirmed cases of HCV infection. Health officials estimate that there are roughly 90,000 people living with HCV in Wisconsin, 75% of whom have no idea they’re infected (Madden, 2017).

Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Photo Source: State of Wisconsin

More troubling than just the massive two-year-increase in new infections is the relatively new trend of new HCV infections amongst people aged 15-29. In the past ten years, reports of HCV have shifted from a single peak of middle age adults in 2006, to a distribution of two peaks in 2015 (Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2016a). While the increased rate of HCV among older adults is likely the result of a new recommendation to screen the birth cohort, the new peak in infection rates among 15-29-year-olds is likely due to the vast increase in the abuse of prescription opioids and heroin in rural and suburban areas. Between 2011 and 2015, the rate of HCV infection in 15-29-year-olds increased from 40.4 per 100,000 people (2011) to 86.9 per 100,000 people (2015) (WI DHS, 2016b).

Not far behind them are those aged 30-49, with a rate of 74.8 per 100,000 (2015), up from 57.9 per 100,000 (2011), again, largely due to the increase in Injection Drug Use (IDU). It is estimated that 50% of People Who Inject Drugs (PWIDs) become infected with HCV within five years of injecting (WI DHS 2016b). Strong prescription opioids have been readily available via legitimate prescriptions since the mid-1990s to treat virtually any type of pain, during which time, prescription abuse has become a major issue amongst children and teens who gain access and become addicted to these drugs through either their own pain-related legitimate prescriptions, or through illegally obtaining prescriptions written for family members or friends.

While the prescription opioid addiction crisis has been endured for over twenty years, now, only recently have drug manufacturers – such as Perdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin and Opana, the two most widely abused opioid drugs in the U.S. – been called to account for both the addictive nature of their drugs and the oftentimes extraneous supply of medications being routed through local and family-owned pharmacies that often lack the same level of scrutiny and oversight needed to effectively combat over-prescribing and abuse. Wisconsin also does not current require a physical exam for patients to be prescribed opioid painkillers, nor is ID required for all opioid prescription purchases (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

Wisconsin also has no doctor shopping laws on the books – laws preventing patients from seeking prescriptions from multiple physicians – which limits the state’s ability to crack down on patients who attempt to gain prescriptions from various sources, as well as prescribers who are lax in their monitoring of patient behaviors. In conjunction with the latter, Wisconsin physicians and pharmacists are not required by the state to undergo mandatory education regarding appropriate opioid prescribing practices in order to ensure that they do not over-prescribe, and that they are prescribing opioids only for medically necessary reasons (HIV/HCV Co-Infection Watch, 2017).

While Wisconsin is certainly not experiencing HCV infection rates as high as other Midwestern and Southern states, such as Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, or West Virginia, this relatively sudden increase in rates and new infections is troubling. We, here at HEAL Blog, will continue to monitor the situation as it develops.

References:

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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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An Imperfect Prison Health System

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

One of the primary issues for people in America’s vast prison system is the issue of healthcare rights and treatment. In fact, prisoners are the only Americans who are Constitutionally guaranteed the right to treatment for health conditions under the 8th Amendment, specifically the “cruel and unusual punishments” clause (Estelle v. Gamble, 1976). This ruling has been used since 1976 to ensure that inmates who are infected with HIV, and now, Hepatitis C (HCV), receive the appropriate medical treatment to which they are guaranteed under that decision. Additional arguments can be made that using a “Treatment as Prevention” (TAP) model in incarceration settings will help to stem the spread of various Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) and Infection (STIs), including both HIV and HCV.

Over the past two years, HEAL Blog has covered various aspects of the HCV treatment provision for inmates in various states. Several states, including Tennessee, Nevada, Missouri, Washington state, and Pennsylvania, are currently facing lawsuits brought my inmates and advocates in state and Federal courts to force their respective Departments of Corrections to provide treatment to HCV-infected patients. Unfortunately for the states – and more specifically, their budgets – courts have seemed inclined to agree with both advocates and inmates: providing treatment and a cure for HCV is mandatory, regardless of the expense.

Nurse administer care to an inmate.

Photo Source: Prison Protest

The primary argument used by states and their respective Departments of Corrections is that the high cost-per-patient/per-cure is simply an unreasonable expenditure, given the long-term nature of the disease (meaning the length of time from gestation to serious illness to death). The cheapest Wholesale Acquisition Cost (WAC) of the newer Direct Acting Agents (DAAs) to treat HCV – Zepatier (Merck) – is $54,600 for twelve weeks of treatment, before any discounts, rebates, or pricing agreements struck between states and the drug manufacturers. Viekira XR (AbbVie) and Epclusa (Gilead) cost $83,319 and $74,760, respectively, which makes treating inmates with HCV incredibly expensive in one go.

Gilead and other manufacturers have argued – with only moderate success – that the short-term high cost of a cure actually ends up costing less in the long-term, when compared to both the co-infections and –morbidities (co-existing conditions) that can accompany untreated HCV infections, and the long-term cost of treating other serious chronic illnesses, which over a course of several years, account for far more money being spent to treat them. While this argument may look great on paper for the manufacturers, for government employees and elected representatives who are tasked with prepared, appropriating, and allocating funds in a budgeting process, it’s simply not a feasible one. By their way of thinking, long-term illnesses represent costs that can be spread out over time, while HCV manufacturers expect a cure, right up front, set at a budget-breaking price.

States have found a unique way of getting around the 8th Amendment statute that courts have ruled guarantees treatment: they simply fail or refuse to screen incoming and existing inmates. Many states require that inmates only be screened for HIV during the intake process, allowing prison officials to essentially feign ignorance about their prisoners’ health – if they don’t know, they don’t have to treat. Unfortunately for the state, prisoners are getting wise to this tactic, and are taking them to court to force treatment. Nevada, for example, reported 593 inmates with HCV, including just two who were receiving treatment (0.34%) in 2015 (Botkin, 2017). By March 2016, a total of only nine inmates were receiving treatment.

Given the vast budget constraints placed upon states, we at HEAL Blog understand that the cost of treating every HCV-infected inmate is a potentially financially disastrous proposal, and a non-starter in virtually every state. Attempting to get around those costs by ignoring the problem is simply an unacceptable way for state and Federal prisons to operate. Yes – treatments are expensive; but, when lives are at stake, trying to get around a Constitutional obligation to treat is simply unacceptable.

References:

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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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HIV and Hepatitis C Counterindication Conundrum

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

In two separate posts in 2016, HEAL Blog covered the complex world of treating Hepatitis C (HCV) infections in people co-infected with HIV. While both HIV and HCV treatment regimens have reached groundbreaking levels over the past decade, negative drug interactions between regimens to treat the two conditions still leaves something to be desired.

A recent study published in the Journal of Hepatology found that one of the most popular drugs to treat HCV, Sovaldi (sofosbuvir, Gilead), can have serious drug interactions when used in combination with Viread (tenofovir disoproxil, Gilead), as well as other drugs used to treat HIV (Semedo, 2016 & Shen, 2016). The primary issue discovered by this study (as well as other studies) is that Sovaldi and other Direct-Acting Agents (DAAs) containing sofosbuvir, such as Harvoni (Gilead) and Epclusa (Gilead), can cause liver or kidney toxicity when co-administered with Viread and other HIV drugs. This is of particular concern, as one of the main health issues caused by HCV is liver fibrosis.

The study’s co-author, Bingfang Yan (Ph.D.) suggests that a potential method of getting around this counterindication would be to administer the regimens at different times, or by using different delivery methods (e.g. – administering the HIV regimen first, or through the skin, and the HCV regimen taken orally at a different time).

One issue facing both physicians and patients is that only a handful of long-term or longitudinal studies have been conducting, meaning that both physicians and patients have only counterindication warnings to go upon, that only suggest potential side effects may occur without definitive scientific proof. This can create considerable consternation for all parties involved, as one recommendation is clear: HIV treatment should not be suspended in order to treat HCV infections. The nature of HIV is such that ceasing regimens can lead the virus to develop immunities to the components of the therapy, meaning that a new treatment option will need to be selected. While the negative side effects of HIV drugs has eased over the past thirty years, each patient’s individual body chemistry is unique, and it can take time to find the right regimen for each patient.

A fantastic resource for checking counter-indications between HIV and HCV drugs is HEP Drug Interactions, a project of the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. This free website allows users to use the HEP Drug Interaction Checker to see which HCV regimens have counter-indications with drugs to treat virtually any medical condition. The site is sponsored by Janssen, Gilead, Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and AbbVie, each of which make drugs to treat HCV. The site also offers mobile apps for both Apple and Android devices, where users can access the same HEP Drug Interaction Checker information that is available on the full site.

References:

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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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West Virginia’s Rx Crisis

HEAL Blog is the recipient of the ADAP Advocacy Association’s 2015-2016 ADAP Social Media Campaign of the Year Award
By: Marcus J. Hopkins, Blogger

Over the past two years, HEAL Blog has paid much attention to the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic sweeping America’s suburban and rural areas, particularly in the 13-state Appalachian Mountain region. Nowhere is this truer than in those counties and states where coal mining is the predominant industry. Mining coal can be brutal work, and miners have historically led the pack in terms of health issues. From Black Lung Disease to various types of cancer related to the inhalation of coal dust and exposure to chemicals used by the mining industry, it is a long-standing reality that the hard life coal miners face to make a living will likely result in long-term illness, pain, and/or disability.

Compounding the myriad health issues related to mining coal is how physicians, pain advocates, and pharmaceutical companies have capitalized upon these issues in the pursuit profits. In the late 1990s, prescription opioid painkillers that were once reserved for only the sickest, most desperately hurting patients gained acceptance as an acceptable treatment for even the most minor injuries, and Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, one of the most widely abused prescription opioid drugs, was key in ensuring that their products were made available to as many people as possible, despite knowing (and withholding information about) the highly addictive nature of these pills. Purdue even went so far as to provide physicians with tens-of-thousands of coupons offering free 30-day trials of OxyContin to give their patients. And, with its work- and lifestyle-related injuries causing their patients pain, coal mining regions quickly became a pipeline for overprescribed opioid drugs.

Purdue Pharma logo

Photo Source: Purdue Pharma

Recent investigations and lawsuits in West Virginia have revealed astonishing levels of overprescribing, abuse, and overdoses in the state. Drug shipping sales records from drug companies (which those companies fought to keep confidential) indicate that, between 2007 and 2012, 780,069,272 prescription opioid drugs were shipped into state, amounting to 433 pills for every man, woman, and child in the state of West Virginia (Eyre, 2016a). A single pharmacy in the town of Kermit, WV (population 392) received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills in a period of two years. In Wyoming County, a mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana, WV received 600 times as many oxycodone pills than the corporate Rite Aid pharmacy just eight blocks away. This essentially unfettered flooding of prescription opioids into the state has resulted West Virginia having the top four counties – Wyoming, McDowell, Boone, and Mingo – in the United States for fatal overdoses related to prescription opioid drugs, with two more – Mercer and Raleigh – also in the top ten. Logan, Lincoln, Fayette, and Monroe counties sit in the top twenty counties for opioid-related fatal overdoses.

West Virginia map of opioid overdoses, by county

Photo Source: Gazette-Mail

To make matters worse, state regulations have required wholesale distributors to set up systems to identify “suspicious” orders for highly addictive narcotics, and to report those questionable orders to the state’s pharmacy board, a regulation that drug companies ignored. Between 2001 and June 2012, the pharmacy board received just two reports – both from Cardinal Health; since June 2012, 7,200 reports about suspicious orders have been faxed in to the pharmacy board. This sudden flow of reports only came after former Attorney General Darrell McGraw filed lawsuits against fourteen drug wholesalers. Despite these reports, the pharmacy board did nothing with them, even failing to investigate or forward the reports on to law enforcement authorities (Eyre, 2016b). The state recently reached a $3.5M settlement with drug wholesaler, H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Company over its role in the problem (Associated Press, 2017).

The state has since made receiving these drugs more difficult, which has led many patients addicted to them to turn to cheaper, more readily available heroin, and as such has resulted in a sharp increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses, deaths, and disease transmissions (primarily Hepatitis B and C). The state’s first syringe exchange programs opened in the Fall of 2015, which will hopefully stem the spread of disease, but they are located only in the state’s major cities. Additionally, treatment facilities for addition are vastly overcrowded, underfunded, and unaffordable for those whose meager resources are already stretched past the point of breaking.

West Virginia continues to be a state to monitor, along with Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, where opioid addiction can often lead to the rampant spread of blood borne diseases that were once rare in the region. It is difficult to overstate the severity of the epidemic, and HEAL Blog will do its best to report on the situation.

References:

 
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Disclaimer: HEAL Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of the Community Access National Network (CANN), but rather they provide a neutral platform whereby the author serves to promote open, honest discussion about Hepatitis-related issues and updates. Please note that the content of some of the HEAL Blogs might be graphic due to the nature of the issues being addressed in it.

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