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The Prison Complex

Wednesday, Jun 22, 2016, 7:00 am

17% Of The Prison Population Has Hepatitis C, Here’s How That Could Change

By George Lavender

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Hepatitis C affects an estimated 1% of the general population but 17% of the prison population. Until relatively recently, treatment for the disease had extremely limited success rates and highly unpleasant side effects. That's changed with the introduction of new drugs that are significantly more effective at treating the disease.

However, not all prisoners have been able to receive the new drugs, something that has prompted some prisoners to take corrections departments in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Pennsylvania to court.  At issue is the cost of the newer drugs. Take Solvadi and Harvoni, for example, two of the most successful new drugs. A single pill of each costs $1,000 and $1,125 respectively. Prison departments that are using the newer treatments have seen their spending on Hepatitis C increase dramatically.

A study published earlier this year in the Annals of Internal Medicine argues that treating Hepatitis C in prisons, has consequences outside prison walls as well. In fact, the study claims that the move is cost-effective in the long-run. This was a recent story I produced for Marketplace:

Dr. Jagpreet Chhatwal, assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School, has studied the economics of treating hepatitis C in prisons and said that while the drugs are expensive, liver transplants and treatment for patients with hepatitis C in its later stages are also costly.

He said treating the disease in prison is worth it in the long run because cutting the number of infected people in prison has a dramatic impact on the number of people living with the disease society wide. That’s because the average length of time anyone spends in prison is three years, but it can take 20 or even 30 years before the more damaging consequences of hepatitis C manifest. By that point, the majority of those who had been in prison have been released and would require treatment in the community.

Chhatwal said his findings show that if all prisons tested all prisoners and treated all those who needed it, they would diagnose between 41,900 and 122,700 neses of the disease in prison over 30 years. To do this, he said, would require prisons on average to ramp up spending by an extra 12 percent.  Continue reading… 

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.

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