– AIDS Committee of North Bay & Area - To assist and support all persons infected or affected by HIV/AIDS and/or Hepatitis C and to limit the spread of the viruses through eduction, awareness and outreach strategies.

Drug Cure for Hep C Means $95,000 Cost for Windsor Man

March 10th, 2015 at 10:41 am


Thirty-three years after a van-motorcycle crash put Mike North in hospital for multiple surgeries, he is suffering the devastating health effects from the hepatitis C virus that snuck into his body via blood transfusions.

The virus has attacked his liver, which is now in the most advanced stage of cirrhosis, and he needs a transplant. But before the transplant he must take a recently approved drug that should cure him of hep C, so the virus won’t attack the new liver. Harvoni boasts a cure rate higher than 95 per cent. But there’s a catch: it costs $95,000 for a 12-week treatment, and North has almost no coverage.

“If I don’t get a liver, I’m done,” said North, 62, a former manager at several local automotive plants, who has some savings (including his share of the settlement paid out to victims of Canada’s tainted blood scandal), but only enough to fund his retirement. So his family and medical staff are scrambling to find a way to get him these $1,130 pills as quickly as they can.

While North is qualified to get drugs virtually free from the Ontario government drug benefit plan, Harvoni isn’t on the list of drugs the province will pay for. It is currently under review, a Ministry of Health spokesman said last week. A recommendation from the Canadian Drug Expert Committee is expected on March 20, but it will take some time after that for Ontario to decide whether to fund Harvoni.

“It’s very, very hard for Canada to keep abreast of new drugs quickly because we do have a number (at least three) of regulatory processes,” said Adam Cook, a hep C policy researcher at the Canadian Treatment Action Council. He said the recent development of these new and expensive hep C drugs is very unusual in the world of virology.

“We don’t get to cure things very often. This one has a cure,” said Cook.

Robbie Jozsi, a nurse who works for area gastroenterologists taking care of their hep C patients, has started the process of appealing to the drug’s maker, Gilead Sciences, to provide North the drug for compassionate reasons.

“We’re hoping they won’t refuse him because he is quite sick and he needs this medication,” said Jozsi. The damage to his liver is so severe that it’s taking a toll on the rest of his body. He has esophageal varices, which are enlarged veins – located in the tube between the throat and stomach – that are in danger of rupturing. He also suffers from fatigue, muscle pain and problems with his memory. North said he feels like he’s walking around in a fog.

“You don’t like to see that,” Jozsi said of North’s advanced cirrhosis. “That’s why I’m saying he’s got to get (the drug) fast.”

North’s daughter, Veronica Penfold, called the situation a nightmare.

“Because we thought he had survived the accident and now it feels like the accident is going to kill him,” said Penfold, who was 11 when the crash happened. She has started a gofundme account to raise money for the drugs.

North was 30 and fit in August of 1982, when he took his six-year-old daughter Mary on an after-dinner ride on his motorcycle. They were headed north on Pillette Road when a van going north attempted to turn left onto Guy Street and collided with the bike, according a Windsor Star report. Mary was thrown 10 feet and found in a bush, with a broken leg and collarbone. North had a ruptured bowel and a damaged spleen that had to be removed. Almost every rib was broken, his left leg was broken in many places and his left foot was crushed.

During the operations, he received 34 units of blood, he said. “I guess it was going out as fast as it was going in.”

It took about 30 years before North discovered that he’d been infected with hep C, a virus that attacks the liver and for years often shows no symptoms. North said it was only discovered because his doctor noticed high levels of iron in his blood and advised him to go donate some blood to help bring the iron levels down. During routine tests of his blood, the hep C was discovered. His virus has been traced back to some of the blood donated for his surgeries.

North was initially prescribed another new antiviral drug to get rid of his hep C. Fortunately, it was covered by the Ontario Drug Plan, but it nearly killed him, causing bleeding from his eyes, North said. It turned out he had a bad reaction to interferon, which is part of the treatment of almost all of these antiviral drugs.

“He cannot be on any of the interferon-based treatments,” said Jozsi. This newest, Cadillac antiviral, Harvoni, doesn’t use interferon. “It’s just one pill a day and he could take it for 12 weeks.”

But now North has to wait and see how he’s going to get this lifesaving drug.

“It’s a balancing act right now,” he said. “Do I progress worse before they approve it? Are they ever going to approve it? I don’t know.”

Brian Cross |Windsor Star or @WinStarCross
Photo: Dan Janisse | Windsor Star

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