Veterans beating a silent killer

Treatment has a 95 percent cure rate


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The following guest post was submitted to VAntage Point by Ed Drohan, public affairs specialist, James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, Tampa Florida.

Paul Munroe doesn’t know, or for that matter care, how he was infected with hepatitis C.  What he does care about is that he’s finally free of the disease, thanks to a new treatment provided by VA.

Munroe, a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran living in Brooksville, Fla., was first diagnosed with the chronic liver disease more than eight years ago.  He unsuccessfully underwent an older treatment series twice before finally being cured last year.  The older 48-week treatment consisted of weekly injections in the stomach along with daily pills and had side effects so bad that Munroe’s treatment had to be stopped.

“I got so sick and felt so bad,” Munroe said.  “It caused problems with my heart medication so my doctor took me off it.  I was disappointed because I wanted to finish the treatment.”

So when he was offered a chance to try a new treatment only recently made available to the public, he jumped at the chance.  After 12 weeks of treatment, the virus was gone and Munroe was considered cured.

According to Dr. Jamie Morano, an infectious disease physician at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital (JAHVH) in Tampa, the new treatments like the one that cured Munroe usually consist of one to two pills a day for 12 weeks and have a 95 percent cure rate compared to 40 to 45 percent for the older treatments.  The new treatment also has very few side effects and those are usually very mild.

Veterans have more energy, feel better

“To our Veterans, it’s a super easy process.  The treatment is literally 12 weeks on average, usually one pill a day,” Morano said.  “The Veterans say they have more energy and they feel better.  When I see them they have more color in their face.  On average they do really, really well.  It’s pretty exciting.”

VA research has found that several antiviral drug regimens produce dramatically higher cure rates than the older treatment.  The new drug regimens examined in the study also do not contain interferon, which has troublesome side effects such as fever, fatigue, and low blood counts.

The high cure rate is important since hepatitis C can be a silent killer.  Many people don’t even know they’re infected with the virus but, left untreated, it can lead to cirrhosis, end-stage liver disease and liver cancer.

Studies have shown that Veterans, and in particular those between the age of 45 and 65, are at the highest risk of having the hepatitis C virus.

“Essentially the baby boomer generation,” Mike McNulty said.  McNulty is a physician assistant who has been working with hepatitis C patients since the 1990s.  “Those are the ones at highest risk, but otherwise anyone who’s done IV drugs, has tattoos or body piercings, or shares personal items that might have blood on them like a toothbrush or razor.”

Health care workers at the Tampa hospital have worked together over the last few years to identify Veterans who test positive for the hepatitis C virus and get them in for treatment.  According to Tampa Infectious Disease Pharmacist Dr. Jaela Dahl, almost 1,200 Veterans out of the 1,800+ who were identified as having the virus in their system have been treated, and they are working to get even more Veterans in for treatment.

Nationally, the numbers are similar.  More than 80,000 Veterans nationwide have been treated for hepatitis C since January 2014 with an estimated cure rate of 94 percent.  Another 64,000 who have tested positive for the virus are potentially eligible for treatment.

One of those Veterans recently identified for treatment was George Dooley, a Compensated Work Therapy employee at the Tampa VA who contracted the virus in 2011.  He has been undergoing the hepatitis C treatment for two of the three months, but his blood tests so far haven’t detected any virus in his system.

Contracted virus in a “weak moment”

Unlike Munroe, Dooley said he knew exactly when he contracted the virus, calling it “…a weak moment” in 2011.  He hesitated in getting treated for the virus because of the stories he’d heard about the side effects associated with the older treatment.

“I was trying to get stable mentally and physically and get my life together at the time, and I didn’t think I could handle it,” Dooley said.  “I kept putting it off.  Finally I got the nerve to just go ahead and do it because I heard that if you leave it untreated, hepatitis C can turn into liver cancer, so I started looking at it more seriously.”

In the photo above, Marine Corps Veteran George Dooley talks with Clinical Pharmacist Dr. Dana Pepe before picking up his final hepatitis C medication prescription.  Dooley, one of almost 1,200 Veterans treated for the disease at JAHVH, will complete his treatment in March but the hepatitis C virus is already undetectable in his blood work.

Dooley said things are looking good for him and his treatment, and that he’s happy he decided to go through with it.  He also thanked the VA for everything they’ve done for him.

“Isn’t it amazing?  I just thank y’all.  If it weren’t for the VA here, I wouldn’t have a life,” he said.  “Y’all saved my life in oh so many ways.”


Ed Drohan, public affairs specialist

By Ed Drohan, public affairs specialist, James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, Tampa Florida.  Retired Air Force master sergeant with more than 27 years in public affairs and journalism. Served in Somalia, Haiti, New Orleans (post-Katrina) and Afghanistan.

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VAntagePoint Contributor

— VAntage Point Contributors provide insight and perspective on a wide range of Veterans issues. If you’d like to contribute a story to VAntage Point, learn how you can submit a guest blog at http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/how-to-submit-a-guest-post/

Comments

  1. Christopher Shanley    

    I request that Mr. Drohan reply to this email. I am currently serving as a public affairs specialist with the Army National Guard, having reclassified to that MOS qualification in 2015. I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the public affairs career field with Mr. Drohan and gain insight from him on the topic. Thank you in advance.

  2. Randall Lord    

    I went thru HCV treatment last year thanks to the VA. Solvaldi/Ribavirin (12 wks) and it did cure me. But here’s the problem. As a gulf war vet, it affected my gulf war illness issues. My IBS got worse, my joint pain went from being occasional to full-time osteoarthritis, I developed CFS, I have been unable to work since starting treatment last year, I have constant headaches that I can’t get rid of, my diet due to IBS is a low-fat diet yet I’ve high cholestoral now for the 1st time in my life. Prior to treatment I used Ambien to get 4-6 hrs a sleep a day, now I don’t use ambien an sleep 12-14 hrs a day. I have dizzy spells frequently, memory issues, shortness of breath, high blood pressure and am physically weak. Prior to treatment, I was a productive full-time worker and I considered myself in good health. Oh one thing they also don’t tell you is the medication is not intended for those suffering from PTSD or Severe Depression like I have had since the Gulf War. It makes your depression worse, and the main cause of death from the medication is SUICIDE. But I cannot get my VA doctor to accept that somehow the treatment affected me. Oh, and I’ve developed skin problems too. And my hair started falling out (which could just be age). I have random muscle aches which are not related to activity. Prior to treatment I could walk all day long (ex-infantry), now just walking thru Wal-mart makes me feel like passing out. All after starting treatment. Considering I’d just contracted HCV in 2015, I would of been better off waiting on getting treatment as I’d still be able to work.

    1. Maria Adebola    

      Mr. Lord, thank you for your message. I am very sorry to hear about your situation. I have sent your message to our program office and requested their immediate action. We care a great deal for you and we look forward to getting you the care you need in a timely manner.

  3. Junk Bin    

    Go in and get treatment. The old days of being violently sick every week for a long stretch is over.
    I went through treatment and it was a breeze.
    100% curred now

  4. guy w. hackney    

    I have not been able to donate blood for the last 27 years due to the fact that I was “exposed” to hep C sometime in my past, perhaps Vietnam. anyway I was wondering if I did this treatment if I would be allowed to donate blood again? io am O neg and I know that has always been a highly sought after blood.

    1. Maria Adebola    

      Mr. Hackney, once you achieve Sustained Virologic Response (“SVR” or cure), the hepatitis C virus is no longer in your bloodstream and you can no longer pass hepatitis C to others. However, people with a history of hepatitis C, even if they have been cured, are not currently allowed to donate blood.

  5. guy w. hackney    

    oh, also I was assured that it posed not risk to my health, or others, but, the fda would not allow my blood to be used.

  6. Christopher John Romine    

    I just finished Harvoni treatment, all my Vitals are as good as when I was 21 yes old! With this treatment, much prayer, eating good and working out!

  7. William Hays    

    I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. The medical team came to the conclusion I acquired it when I serving in the Army. I contacted the VA who flat out denied me. I was very lucky that the manufacturers of the medication I took had a program to cover my treatment, which was $35,000. Thanks VA for standing behind a Vietnam Vet, just like you did when we came home.

  8. David Bentley    

    The way the military used to give shots is the reason for this desease,lining us up giving shots with those air things and no needle change. You tell me ? Had this went through treatment and was cleared of this. Why won’t the military fess up ? They know where it started,it has gotten put on the back burner. Why ? Look at agent orange and how long it took our gov. to recognize it. Another blast at the American veteran..doctors won’t say on record,but they know. Write someone who will go to bat for vets.

  9. Wayne Castleberry    

    Hang in there Randall. My experience with the hep c treatment (viekira pak/interferon) was the opposite of yours. I’m a 70% disabled service connected vet. I think the hep c may have happened with all the blood I was given during my surgeries for my injuries, but there’s no way to be sure. When I reached my 50s, the pain level became extreme while my muscle control and memory got worse and worse. I thought I didn’t have long to live. After treatment I got better over a period of several months. My health problems and memory have recovered 90% now. Stay on the doctors and nurses. Ask for specialists. Talk to people that know like the Mayo Clinic. And for God’s sake if you feel suicidal talk to people. Your not alone. It’s like addiction, you got to reach out for help sometimes.

  10. Eugene Strahl    

    what is the name of this new, better treatment???

  11. sonny baker    

    if u found out in 1998 and got your shots at va can you get this treatment to get rid of hep c

  12. Donald Miller    

    Was WIA on March 31, 1971. Had a blood transfusion, in 1999 the VA called and said I tested positive for HCV. Was not a good candidate for Ribavirin/Interferon but was granted 100% service connection just for HCV. (Have 6 service-connected disabilities that amount to 240%) So I am 100% T&P with Housebound status. Found out I now have cirrhosis. Fast forward to August of 2012 VA called and said I have a “HCC Mass.” Had my first RFA and TACE liver procedures January 2013 and had a total of 4-RFA and 3 TACE’s to March of 2016. Caught C-diff with the March procedure and took antibiotics for over 6 months, then had a fecal transplant October 2016. The c-diff just about killed me. August 2014 went through the 12 week Sofosbuvir&Simeprevir treatment, HCV came back. August 2015 took Harvoni for 24 weeks, HCV came back. Found out Harvoni does not work for genotype 1b. I am not going into the liver transplant nightmare. I am very happy for everyone that received a cure for this deadly and debilitating disease. I am 65 years old and still go on 15 mile bike rides when I can and go to the gym when I am up for it. I feel terrible most of the time, but I concentrate on the good days and what I have instead of do not have. For everyone who is HCV positive, please take the new treatments before you get cirrhosis or hcv. I do not know how long I have to live, but many doctors cannot believe I am still alive. Just wanted to tell my story. I would love to have a liver transplant, but will not get into that like I mentioned above.

  13. Donald Miller    

    I meant take the new treatments before you get cirrhosis or hcc. (instead of hcv)

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