Hepatitis C Drug Gives Patient His Life Back

Military veteran tried to manage the symptoms of hepatitis C treatment before Harvoni cured him of the disease.

All it took was a random stick of a needle to change a man’s life.

When Steve Hobson was applying for life insurance, he had no idea a seemingly minor accident in his past would lead to a positive test for genotype 1 hepatitis C (HCV). In 1974, Hobson was working as a military lab specialist in Germany in the hepatitis ward.

During this time period, drug use was prevalent within the military causing many cases of hepatitis, according to Hobson.

“Hepatitis C is not something that was widely known about at the time,” Hobson said. “It was sort of there but…it wasn’t designated as one of the hepatitis [genotypes] until later.”

After withdrawing blood from an HCV patient, Hobson inadvertently stuck himself with the needle. He immediately documented the needle stick, which became a part of his military records.

Hobson was subsequently tested to see if he had acquired the disease.

“Initially, they tested me to see if I actually had the disease myself, but I didn’t have any hepatitis antibodies,” Hobson said. “They gave me 5 CCs of gamma globulin (immunoglobulin) in my backside and then from there they monitored me monthly for 6 months. The disease should have developed, it should have shown itself at 6 weeks to 6 months, but it never really did so we let that go.”

It wasn’t until Hobson and his wife visited his life insurance agent many year later that he tested positive for HCV. On June 8, 2009 the Minnesota resident finally received a letter alerting him to the infection.

HCV can lay dormant for years, as some people could go their entire lives unaware that they carry the virus. Hobson said he became upset and frightened as he began to learn more about the virus.

“I was kind of pacing back and forth, and I took a drive in my car. We’re driving around and I go ‘what I am going to do?’ For about a good solid week I had some sleeping issues, some eating issues,” he recalled. “I suppose it was equivalent to if someone told me that I had cancer and I’d probably only have a year to live. Then my doctor told me ‘well it’s not a death sentence.’”

The Symptoms of Hepatitis C Treatment With Interferon

A month later, Hobson started therapy with the drug combination of interferon and ribavirin, which he described as a brutal treatment.

“One of my molars cracked and I ended up with the only crown that I’ve ever had,” Hobson said. “I blame it on the medication, it can affect your teeth.”

He also experienced severe flu-like symptoms, and since the medication causes the white and red blood cell count to drop significantly, Hobson became sensitive to foods, especially meats.

“Even if it has a really low bacterial count to it, it can still cause you to get sick a lot easier,” Hobson said. “I was supposed to avoid being around people and anything I ate was supposed to be well cooked. I ate a leftover poli sausage that I had from the fair and apparently it wasn’t reheated well enough. I got sick and vomited. Right after that I lost consciousness, I passed out."

The combination therapy was supposed to last a year to 18 months, but Hobson was declared a non-responder after only 6 months and he was taken off the medication shortly after.

“I was quite depressed that I didn’t clear the disease,” Hobson said. “That bothered me. But I was glad that I didn’t have to take the medication anymore because I had become a little apprehensive about it.”

The Veterans Administration (VA) in Minneapolis continued to monitor his levels once he came off the medication. They would perform a hepatitis RNA PCR quantitative test every 6 months, and later once a year.

During this time, Hobson’s health was doing okay, but he said HCV was a grey cloud constantly hanging over him, weighing him down. He was told about a new treatment called telaprevir (Incivek) that he could take in addition to ribavirin and interferon.

“They told me I’d probably get a really bad rash from it and still have all the same old side effects, but that my chances of getting cured were better,” Hobson said. “I elected not to do that.”

A Cure for HCV Emerges

It wasn’t until February 2015, when Hobson went for his annual appointment that he was told about a new treatment that didn’t need to be taken with ribavirin and interferon.

At that time Hobson’s health was decent, so when he was told about this new drug, called Harvoni, he was initially hesitant.

Hobson was told that it was just one pill a day for 12 weeks and that the biggest side effects were fatigue, so he eventually agreed to give it a shot. Although Harvoni can cost nearly $90,000 for a 12-week treatment course, Hobson was told that his VA coverage would take care of it.

“The first 4 weeks I was unquantifiable, but they could still detect the disease,” Hobson said. “But by the second 4 weeks the disease was totally gone. The third — the last 4 weeks, the last set of 28 pills – the whole thing, it was gone.”

There are many holidays on the calendar, but few could approach the magnitude of one day in particular for Hobson when he began treatment with the drug.

“February 2 was a turning point in my life,” he said. “I decided that I would celebrate that day from here on out.”

Despite relatively minor side effects compared to interferon-based treatments, Hobson did end up experiencing fatigue from Harvoni, which he especially noticed while going up stairs.

“I’m in a local choir,” Hobson said. “At performances it tends to make me tired anyways because your standing, you’re focusing, and you’re concentrating, but I remember coming out after our spring concert and I was staggering to the car. I sat in my car just kind of waiting. It was an evening concert, I was about 30 miles away from where I lived. It was an easy drive but I almost decided to take a nap and just fall asleep there on the spot. It had its moments of being more fatigue inducing than others, but generally speaking it was a picnic compared to that other stuff.”

Life After Hep C

Despite some of these side effects with Harvoni, Hobson continues to rave about the drug’s impact on his life.

“It felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my back, this kind of sense of elation,” Hobson said. “It started to make me feel relaxed. I could concentrate better on basic life functions, which otherwise were obscured with the thought that I had this nasty disease hanging over me. I don’t take this lightly at all — the fact that this disease has literally given me my life back.”

When Hobson completed his treatment and had cleared the virus, he decided he wanted to go to Foster City, California where Gilead Pharmaceuticals is located, to thank the person who had invented it.

“I walked in there and said ‘I would like to express my thanks to you guys for giving me my life back.’ The receptionist then contacted a representative of Gilead and that’s where it all started,” he said.

The current sticker price for Harvoni is $1350 a pill. Although this price tag is steep, Hobson stresses for patients to not be deterred.

“Don’t give up hope because now especially there is the possibilities of shaking this disease,” Hobson said. “I know it’s expensive. For those that maybe can’t afford it or their insurance companies will likely not cover it, they should not give up hope either.”