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Highly effective, expensive new medicine for Hepatitis C

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- More than three million Americans, most of them Baby Boomers, have Hepatitis C.  The disease has killed around 15,000 Americans a year.  But new treatments can cure Hepatitis C in the vast majority of patients.  A treatment recently approved by the FDA is the first to involve taking only a pill.  It doesn't involve injections of interferon and the flu-like symptoms and depression that came with it.

Halina Handsaker was blindsided 14 years ago after giving blood.

"They sent me a letter -- the Red Cross -- saying they couldn't take my blood because I had Hepatitis C.  I was shocked.  I had no idea," said Handsaker.

That explained why she had fatigue.  She had contracted the disease back in the '80s when she had a blood transfusion.  Even though Hepatitis C scarred her liver and the disease had killed her half-sister, Handsaker put off getting treatment.

"The treatment prior was real harsh.  Very difficult to go through," she said.

Recently, Handsaker took part in a study of Harvoni, a drug that won FDA approval last month.

Patients take one pill once a day. There are no harsh side effects.  Dr. Brad Freilich of Research Medical Center says the drug can cure Hepatitis C 95 to 98 percent of the time.

"And I use the word cure because the virus goes away and it doesn't come back," said Dr. Freilich.

The stage of a person's liver disease, which can be determined now with an ultrasound test, can tell doctors how long a patient needs to be on the drug.  For Handsaker, it was 12 weeks.  Her treatment was paid for as part of the study.  But now that Harvoni is approved, it costs more than $1,000 a pill or about $95,000 for the 12-week treatment.  Some insurers, including Medicaid, are balking at paying for it.  But Freilich says compared to the costs of other drugs, Harvoni is worth it in preventing cirrhosis, liver cancer and deaths.

"Here we're actually curing somebody.  That's a big difference and that's why it's worth it to have patients treated," said Dr. Freilich.

Handsaker received great news after completing treatment.

"After three months, they called me cured. And it's wonderful," she said.

The government recommends that every person born between 1945 and 1965 be tested once for Hepatitis C.  People may have been infected back in the '70s or '80s from transfusions or IV drug use, but symptoms don't appear until decades later.

The government also says anyone who's used IV drugs or anyone who had a blood transfusion prior to July of 1992 should also be tested.

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