Illinois legislator Michael McAuliffe has lost three family members to the infectious disease Hepatitis C and says if each were alive today, treatment could have saved them.
The Republican state representative along with other state lawmakers insists more testing and treatment is needed to save patients from the “covert virus.”
Hepatitis C is an infectious disease caused by a virus known to attack the liver. Carriers don’t always know that they have it and can carry the virus for years until liver-damaging symptoms start showing up, according to health experts. The virus is spread through contact with contaminated blood, like shared needles through illegal drug use, according to the Mayo Clinic.
McAuliffe and state Sen. John Mulroe (D-Chicago) proposed a bill last year that would require doctors to offer patients 45- to 65-years-old (the highest risk group) preliminary screening to help detect the virus and treat it. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“I found out through going to a regular doctor visit–they don’t offer you the test unless you ask for it,” McAuliffe said.
While their bill is in limbo, McAuliffe and Mulroe say the concern about the impact of Hepatitis C has not abated, especially as an uptick in heroin cases threatens the state. Issues with the state budget deterred McAuliffe and Mulroe from petitioning the governor’s veto this session. But McAuliffe said they want to push the bill forward again when the budget stabilizes.
“It would have probably been a costly [bill], because they’re afraid of how many people would find out they had Hepatitis C,” McAuliffe said.
Hepatitis C is an often deadly inflammation of the liver due to contaminated blood. Along with dirty needles, it can be spread though razors and toothbrushes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In few cases, the virus can also spread through sex.
“Seventy-five percent of the people that are alive now today have the virus,” McAuliffe said. “It can lay dormant in your system for a long time.”
Because most people don’t know they have it, Hepatitis C can be transmitted unknowingly. Early symptoms mimic that of the flu—fatigue and nausea—and are often mild and intermittent, according to the CDC. This leads people to mistakenly ignore the signs as the virus begins eroding the liver.
For about one-third of Hepatitis C victims, the virus can disappear in six months without treatment. The remaining group, however, develop chronic Hepatitis C which, if untreated, can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer.
Hepatitis C, McAuliffe noted, is the number one cause for liver transplants.
The Baby Boomer generation — those born between 1945 and 1965 — are five times more likely to be infected with Hepatitis C than other adults. In 2012, the CDC issued recommendations calling for people within that age range to get tested for Hepatitis C, said Melaney Arnold, Illinois Department of Public Health information officer, in an email.
Follow-up on that recommendation, however, has not been reflected in many doctors’ offices. Despite the governor’s veto, the bill “brought attention to the issue in the medical community,” Mulroe said.
Even though the population of people at the highest risk are 45- to 65-year-olds, Mulroe warned that youth addicted to heroine could cause Hepatitis C to manifest in the younger population.
“We have a heroin epidemic on our hands,” he said. “People are using needles and may be reusing needles, and there’s some concern that Hepatitis C is concentrated in 50- to 70-year-olds, but that virus might reemerge in younger people because of the heroine epidemic.”
The preliminary testing for the virus costs $10 – $20 per person, Mulroe said.
Infection can be determined based on enzymes and antibodies present in the blood and liver activity. If a patient’s body shows Hepatitis C antibodies, that means their body fought off the virus; but that does not mean immunity, according to the CDC.
The virus can reemerge, which means the dangers of spreading the virus still linger.
The initial cost of screening and treatment could be costly if widely administered, Mulroe said. But Hepatitis C can be reversed if caught early enough, he added, which is why screening is important. The medicine that treats Hepatitis C, even in its generic form, is quite effective, McAullife said adding that while they are expensive, “a generic brand may be coming out soon, [and] it’s about a 98-percent cure rate.”
While the short term cost my be expensive, the long term costs of not treating Hepatitis C early is even more expensive, Mulroe stressed. Extended hospital stays, continued and more expensive treatment for liver disease, and transplant surgeries put a heavy financial strain on patients and private insurance companies, he said.
“You would eliminate all those costs that are in the future,” Mulroe said. “You’ve got to sometimes look beyond the short term. Short term costs lead to long term gain.”