The EU drugs agency (EMCDDA) welcomes new moves to make hepatitis C medications more accessible to those affected by the virus in line with its previous statements. Hepatitis C is the most common infectious disease in injecting drug users, among whom it is usually transmitted through the sharing of injecting equipment such as needles and syringes.
Hepatitis C is caused by the blood-borne hepatitis C virus (HCV) and affects primarily the liver. Often known as the ‘hidden epidemic’, hepatitis C infection can go for long periods undiagnosed, with many of those infected showing either mild or no symptoms for 20 years or more. Chronic infection can lead to cirrhosis of the liver after many years and, in some cases, liver failure and liver cancer. Research has demonstrated that HCV treatment can be applied with the same level of success among recent and former drug users as among other patients.
A new medication, Sofosbuvir — introduced into Europe in 2014 — has been shown, not only to stop the further progress of the disease and its consequences, but also to allow full recovery in most patients. However, the very high cost of treatment with this drug — up to EUR 100 000 per treated case reported in some instances — have limited the wider application of this new treatment.
Now some countries are finding ways to make such medications more affordable and accessible to those in need. In Portugal, for example, a recent agreement reached between the Ministry of Health, the National Authority of Medicines and Health Products (Infarmed) and the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, establishes a treatment plan for hepatitis C patients. While prices have not been made public, the plan will reportedly allow for the treatment of up to 13 000 individuals in the country over the next two to three years, including patients whose disease has not yet reached the most problematic states. These new developments should speed up urgently needed improvements in access to HCV treatment.
Discussions on pricing are also taking place in other EU Member States (e.g. Germany) and there is hope that dropping prices will help to make treatment more affordable to national health systems and, therefore, more accessible to drug users.
The EMCDDA will monitor these positive developments and provide information on evidence-based best practice in this area. It will also serve as a platform for exchange on national experiences in implementing and scaling up these new treatments.
An EMCDDA Insights publication on the treatment of hepatitis will be released later in 2015.