About 3.2 million Americans have hepatitis C, a highly contagious virus that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. The virus affects a large number of incarcerated individuals, which may make prison a good place to start in exploring the public health potential of new heptatis C drugs.
“Theoretically we (prisons) have everything we need,” says Dr. Jodi Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University in Rhode Island.
“We have health care personnel, we have health care infrastructure, we have potential linkage to care in the community.”
But administering the treatment could be a costly proposition. In Washington State, one inmate is currently receiving the breakthrough drugs, sold under the brand names Sovaldi and Olysio. According to studies, patients who take them have a 90 per cent chance of getting rid of the virus.
Nevertheless, Washington's Department of Corrections (DOC) is debating whether it can afford expanding the program.
By March of this year the DOC had spent over $1.2 million to treat about 70 inmates suffering from hepatitis C, with older drugs, which can cause intense side effects like depression. But the cost of treating the single inmate with the new breakthrough drug is $143,000.
Patient advocates say in the long run the new drugs will be cheaper. But so far, the Washington DOC is moving cautiously.
Patricia Murphy, a reporter at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle, explores the issue in a special report. Murphy was a 2013 Health and Crime Journalism Fellow at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her fellowship was supported by the Langeloth Foundation. Read her story HERE.