April 3, 2017 5:57 pm
Updated: April 3, 2017 9:20 pm

Alberta expands drug coverage for hepatitis C patients

WATCH ABOVE: Doctors are calling it a 'cure' for Hepatitis C and the new drug has just been approved in Canada. As Su-Ling Goh explains, one Edmonton specialist calls it a major advance in the field.

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The province is getting on board with a drug treatment that will be good news for people with hepatitis C.

“Effective April 2017, Alberta Health has agreed to pay for several new therapies for the treatment of hepatitis C, the most important of which is a medicine called Epclusa, which contains two anti-viral drugs,” said Stephen Shafran, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta.

Watch below: Alberta Health says it is taking new steps in an effort to eliminate hepatitis C in our province.

Epclusa, a drug for hep C with a near 100 per cent cure rate, is now going to be covered by Alberta Health.

“It has an unbelievable efficacy with a 98 per cent cure rate and almost no side effects. It’s that good,” Shafran said.

The drug is a once-daily pill taken for 12 weeks that can rid the body of all six strains of hepatitis C, a blood-borne virus that can lead to severe liver damage and liver cancer if left untreated.

It received Health Canada approval last July.

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“This should give people hope that they can be cured,” Shafran said. “The funding is a great announcement but there are still some restrictions on access because these therapies are relatively costly. At this time, we’re still not allowed to treat every person with hepatitis C but we’re able to treat a large number of them and we can certainly treat anybody who has evidence of moderate to severe liver damage.”

READ MORE: Hepatitis C cure? Health Canada approves new drug 

University of Calgary liver specialist Mark Swain said the treatment checks off all the boxes you want in a drug.

“It needs to cover everyone, it needs to be highly effective and needs to have no or very limited side effects, and this drug really fits that bill.”

It’s the first, once-daily single tablet regiment, and has been around for a short time, but people who need it have been waiting for it.

“People who have hepatitis C have heard of these drugs that are coming along and have been just waiting to get a hold of it,” Swain said, “because it does fulfil all the needs of the people who need to be treated.”

READ MORE: Patients in Saskatchewan to receive expanded hepatitis C drug coverage 

Up until now, Swain added, only a few private plans covered the drug.

“The broad population of Alberta, many of them who get their drug coverage through the Alberta government program, such as non-group Alberta Blue Cross, they couldn’t access this drug.”

READ MORE: New hepatitis C treatment a ‘game changer’ 

In Alberta there are about 24,000 people living with chronic hepatitis C. That number is above the national average.

An estimated 250,000 to 400,000 Canadians are estimated to be infected with this “silent killer,” which can take decades to manifest symptoms of cirrhosis, including swollen legs and abdomen, and the yellow skin, eyes and urine related to jaundice.

READ MORE: Baby boomers should be tested for hepatitis C

Dr. Morris Sherman, chair of the Canadian Liver Foundation, said Canada and other countries have committed to eliminating hepatitis C by 2030, but to accomplish that goal treatment rates need to be significantly boosted.

With files from Emily Mertz, Global News and Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

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