Lessons I learned at the Banff symposium on hepatitis C

Sometimes you get so bombarded with knowledge that it’s hard to sort out. A few days after the Banff symposium, I’m still sorting things. But one piece of information jumps out. Developments in HCV treatment are occurring so quickly that no one, not even health professionals, can keep up with all of the fine details. But they do their best to fill their minds with hepatitis C knowledge at events like the one I just attended.

That brings me to the point of this post: when I see more than 200 nurses, doctors, and researchers attend a conference that is packed with scientific information, I get a sense that there are people out there who are firmly dedicated to curing hepatitis C. The 4th Canadian Symposium on Hepatitis C took place on a sunny weekend in the glorious town of Banff, amid the chiseled-top Rockies in Banff National Park. Not one person out of the many dozen I spoke with was willing to forgo a day of the weekend hepatology conferences–there were more than one–to ski Lake Louise or to traipse over to the hot springs just up the road from the conference centre.

I got a sense that the attendees were yearning for every bit of knowledge they could grab. I also get a sense that they would cheer if hepatitis C were eradicated from the earth. These are very smart people; they could get new jobs in an eye blink.

Take the nurses, for example. According to Curtis Cooper, director of the Ottawa Hospital Viral Hepatitis Program, “In the old days nurses’ main responsibilities were trying to get patients through the awful side effects (of interferon).”

With the new anti-virals, most of those side effects are gone. In my treatment with simeprevir and sofosbuvir, I had a tiny tummy ache for three or four days, much less than I get from antibiotics.

But as Magdalena Kuczynski from the Toronto Western Hospital pointed out, nurses are as necessary as ever. Several attendees expressed concerns about people who fail to achieve a 12-week SVR even with the new one-pill, non-interferon regimens. Although trials have achieved upwards of 96% (and even 100%) cure rates, things could change. Once the drugs move out of trials and patients have less guidance from nurse practitioners, they could become over-confident. Adherence to drug-taking schedules could falter, and SVR rates could drop.

Moreover, researchers at the conference didn’t see an end to the disease coming soon.  Dr. Rob Myers recently moved from teaching in the Liver Unit at the University of Calgary to working as senior director in the Liver Diseases Therapeutic Area of Gilead Sciences, Inc. As one of the foremost researchers in hepatitis C, he predicted the disease could (note the italics) be eradicated within 20 years. That’s a long time for people facing serious liver disease, but Meyers pointed out that the prevalence of hepatitis C is starting to decline.

Meanwhile, Daryl Luster, president of the Pacific HepC Network, warned that we are living in an age of austerity. “I hear that our health system will collapse if we come forward and treat everyone with a hep C diagnosis,” he said.

But eventually health care could indeed treat everyone. Dr. Sharon Hutchinson, from Glasgow Caledonian University, demonstrated that Scotland has been moving toward that goal much quicker than Canada. Canada treats only 1.4% of it’s hepatitis C cases each year, while Scotland treats 3%. Either of those percentages seem tiny, but as more people learn they have hepatitis C, more are bound to get treatment.

The big message for Baby Boomers is to get tested.

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