With the approval this month of two drugs to treat hepatitis C in children, these often overlooked victims of the opioid epidemic have a better chance at a cure. Kids may have an easier time than adults getting treatment approved, some experts say.
Medicaid programs and private insurers have often balked at paying for the pricey drugs for adults, but stricter Medicaid guidelines for kids may make coverage more routine.
The two drugs approved for pediatric use by the Food and Drug Administration, Harvoni and Sovaldi, both have been highly effective in treating adults with the disease. In two clinical trials of children ages 12 to 17, the drugs eliminated all traces of the virus in 97 to 100 percent of patients, generally in 12 weeks. Trials that test the effectiveness of the drugs in younger children are ongoing.
The FDA approved Sovaldi in 2013 and Harvoni in 2014 for adults, and the drugs were widely hailed because they cured nearly everyone with minimal side effects, typically in 12 weeks. Earlier treatment regimens that required interferon injections and antiviral pills for six months or more were less effective and frequently caused severe side effects.
But until the FDA approved the drugs for pediatric use, many doctors were delaying treatment. Because the FDA approval applies to children 12 and older who weigh at least 77 pounds, this group would require an adult dose.
Researchers estimate that 23,000 to 46,000 children in the United States are infected with hepatitis C, a blood-borne infection that causes inflammation of the liver and can lead to liver failure, cancer and death. Most of the estimated 2.7 million to 3.9 million people overall that have chronic hepatitis C in the U.S. got it from transfusions of contaminated blood or sharing needles and other equipment while injecting illicit drugs.
But only about 20 percent of children get it from drug use. The majority of kids become infected by their mom during pregnancy. A baby has about a 6 percent chance of contracting hepatitis C if their mother has it.
Since neither adults nor children are routinely screened for hepatitis C and many don’t develop any symptoms after becoming infected, people may have the disease for years before learning they’re sick.