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Hepatitis C doctor talks about positive outcomes

By JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent

June 26. 2012 11:02PM

EXETER - A Boston doctor known internationally for his work in treating hepatitis C patients offered hope Tuesday night for victims of an outbreak at Exeter Hospital.

'Hepatitis C is not a mandatory death sentence,' Dr. Raymond Chung of Massachusetts General Hospital told a group of about 80 people who turned out for a medical and legal information night at Exeter Town Hall to learn more about the virus, treatment options and other information as fears continue to spread.

The night was sponsored by The Patients Speak, a new patient advocacy group formed in the wake of the Exeter outbreak, and state Rep. Lee Quandt, R-Exeter.

Chung said treatment options are more available now than ever before, including one still undergoing clinical trials but has been shown to be highly effective and could receive approval to be used exclusively for Exeter patients.

The treatment would involve pills taken orally and not interferon, an injection used to treat hepatitis C that can cause significant side effects, according to Chung, chief of hepatology, vice chief of gastroenterology, and medical director of the liver transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Based on early data from clinical trials, Chung said the oral treatment offered 'sufficiently high rates of cure for us to be very encouraged.'

He said the trials aren't complete and the treatment hasn't been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but 'there is certainly enough data out there to support the potential use in extraordinary circumstances.'

Chung said he has approached a drug maker about possibly being involved in the oral treatment under a 'compassionate use' scenario where the treatment could be made available to a 'very limited number of patients' even though it's not approved by the FDA. He declined to identify the drug company, but said the option is currently under consideration.

Chung described hepatitis C as a 'beatable illness' that often times doesn't lead to significant illness or even symptoms. However, when it becomes chronic, it usually takes 20 to 30 years before a patient begins experiencing significant complications from liver damage.

Chang said patients are 'on the cusp' of many advances in treatment.

'You have years ahead of you to essentially come up with a solution to beat that virus that works for you,' he told the audience, some of whom were patients who underwent testing. None of the 19 patients believed to have been infected in the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab nor the one hospital employee asked questions. A hospital worker is suspected of spreading the virus by abusing drugs in syringes meant for patients, officials have said.

A panel of experts was also on hand to answer questions about legal and insurance issues, including former surgeon and malpractice attorney Domenic Paolini, who teamed up with former state Rep. Elenore Casey Crane to form The Patients Speak, a group advocating for patients and pushing legislation to prevent a similar outbreak in the future. Paolini said he isn't profiting from the work and will donate his fees.

A nurse whose husband was infected with hepatitis C unrelated to the Exeter case also shared her story.

'When you have a long illness like many of you are facing, you've got to have faith, hope, love and a damn good doctor,' Quandt said.

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Jason Schreiber may be reached at jschreiber@newstote.com.


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