NYT Story on new drugs for Hep C: example of how to report health biz news

Andrew Pollack’s story, “Hope Against Hepatitis C,” has many elements of solid health journalism – and from the business perspective as well.

Sure, it leads with “hope.”

“The new drugs, which could start reaching the market as early as next year, could help subdue a virus that infects roughly four million Americans, most of them baby boomers, and 170 million people worldwide.

“I almost think this will be revolutionary, to be honest,” said Dr. Fred Poordad, chief of hepatology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “We are chomping at the bit to try to treat as many patients as we can.” “

But there is also frank discussion of reality – with some skepticism.

“But even if the drugs do work, some experts and doctors warn that this virus may be particularly tough to vanquish. Three-quarters of the people who are infected do not know it because they are not tested for the virus and because the infection can be asymptomatic for years while it stealthily attacks the liver.

And because this disease is transmitted by blood, those infected largely are former or current IV-drug users — a population that characteristically has little or no health insurance — who may not be the most able to stick to a lengthy treatment regimen that can cause brutal side effects.

Pharmaceutical companies “completely ignore the real face of hepatitis C,” said Dr. Diana L. Sylvestre, who runs a clinic in Oakland, Calif., that treats drug addicts and former addicts with hepatitis C. “A minority of patients who have hepatitis C will benefit from these drugs.”

When she gave a recent talk at Vertex, Dr. Sylvestre’s first slide showed a man in a suit, meant to be a Vertex executive, with his head in the sand.”

There was an inside look at pharma’s promotional efforts.

“Nevertheless, pharmaceutical companies realize that difficulties getting patients screened and treated could limit the use of their drugs. So they are contributing to a groundswell of activism to raise awareness of what has long been known as a silent epidemic.

Drug makers contribute to the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, which helped pay for the Institute of Medicine report, and several companies have banded together into the Corporate Hepatitis Alliance to lobby for more government funding. In January, several companies started the Viral Hepatitis Action Coalition, to help finance research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Vertex has commissioned studies projecting a rising toll from hepatitis C. One such study, done by Milliman, a health insurance consulting firm, projected that the number of people with advanced liver disease from hepatitis C would quadruple in 20 years if treatment did not improve.

“I think the companies have done a superb job of marketing this disease,” said Dr. Ronald L. Koretz, emeritus professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Koretz said there was no good evidence that treatment made a difference since many patients cured by the drugs might never have developed serious problems anyway.”

Enough excerpts and highlights. Read the entire story at the link above – or the old fashioned way – with newsprint in hand! My point is: more health business news should be as complete, balanced, indepth and analytical as this was.

Kudos to Pollack and the Times.

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Jeremy Engdahl-Johnson

July 23, 2010 at 9:38 am

Tough road ahead in treatment of Hepatitis C, a lurking epidemic that already infects millions.


August 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Good piece, even-handed as you said. Many Hep C positives live relatively unaffected by the disease. Also important to note that treating the disease in its acute phase (first six months) leads to a far better cure rate.