Mediaplanet: With all of the recent innovations in the hepatitis industry, what do you think is most important to wiping out this epidemic?  

John Leake: During the past few years, there have been tremendous advances in hepatitis C treatment. The medications now available to treat hepatitis C are very effective and usually lead to cure, with no evidence of the virus persisting in patients after treatment.

Furthermore, these treatments are well tolerated by almost everyone. They are usually easy-to-take pills and need only be taken for 12 weeks—a significant improvement over prior therapies that required injections and much longer treatment durations. Older therapies also had severe side effects that limited many patients’ ability to complete treatment. New and improved hepatitis C treatments are the best way to prevent the severe liver problems associated with hepatitis C infection.

"Hepatitis C infection can remain relatively silent for decades, and most people infected with hepatitis C do not know their infection status."

In many cases, hepatitis C infection will not cause any obvious health effects until it reaches advanced stages, but that doesn’t mean that damage isn’t being done. That’s why it is so important for people, especially those in the Baby Boomer generation, to talk to their doctor about whether lab testing to identify a chronic infection is right for them.

MP: What is the most important thing patients and physicians ought to know?

JL: Hepatitis C is far more common than many people think: Approximately 3-4 million Americans are infected.  Because hepatitis C may not cause obvious symptoms, most people are unaware that they are infected for many years (often decades). During this time, hepatitis C may cause severe progressive liver damage, eventually resulting in significant scarring (fibrosis/cirrhosis), liver cancer or liver failure, all of which may be fatal.

Hepatitis C is the number one reason for liver transplantation in the U.S. People at risk for hepatitis C include those who received transfusions and blood or blood products, especially prior to the early 1990s; those who have ever engaged in unsafe injection practices or received a needle stick injury; people infected with HIV; infants born to hepatitis C-positive mothers; and everyone born between 1945 and 1965—the Baby Boomers. Baby Boomers account for nearly ¾ of U.S. hepatitis C infections, and most are not aware they are infected.

MP: What do you think is the most common misconception regarding hepatitis today?

JL: Hepatitis C infection can remain relatively silent for decades, and most people infected with hepatitis C do not know their infection status. There is a misconception that only people who may have engaged in certain behaviors are at risk—just being a certain age significantly increases the risk of infection. Many people are needlessly afraid of treatment side effects. Current treatments for hepatitis C are highly effective and very well tolerated compared to past therapies.