Ontarians with hepatitis C who who face death or a liver transplant were given a boost Tuesday when the provincial health ministry agreed to pay for a drug so promising it was only the 7th in history designated by American regulators as a breakthrough therapy.
The announcement, made by the maker of the drug Harvoni, Gilead Sciences Canada, comes five months after it was approved for use by Health Canada and three months after The Free Press reported how patients were dying waiting for the drug to be funded.
Until now, while Harvoni is widely available in the United States and Europe, the only Ontarians with access were those with private insurance or those given the drug for free by Gilead on compassionate grounds. People have been dying waiting for the drug to be approved, doctors told The Free Press in December.
It’s not clear how many Ontarians have hepatitis C because it can take decades to damage the liver enough to cause symptoms. The Canadian Treatment Action Council estimates between 100,000 and 110,000 Ontarians have the disease.
That reality hits hard for people with HIV. Though that virus has been tamed with medication, 20% of those with HIV in Southwestern Ontario also have hepatitis C. They are at greater risk of dying from a failing liver than the HIV virus.
“Today’s announcement recognizes the significant health-system and societal benefits associated with curing this disease and preventing its complications,” said Dr. Paul Marotta, Associate Professor, University of Western Ontario and with London Health Sciences Centre.
Harvoni offers cure rates between 94 and 99%, reduces the incidence of side effects and shortens the duration of treatment to as little as eight weeks.
Ontario also approved reimbursement for some Hepatitis C patients with the drug Sovaldi, which was given the nod by Health Canada 14 months ago.
Afflicts 300,000 Canadians
20% of people in the London region with HIV also have hepatitis C
Transmitted though unprotected sex, shared drug needles, and years ago, tainted blood transmissions,
Attacks the liver but symptoms don’t show until damage advances, a process that can take decades.
Jonathan Sher | London Free Press