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American veterans and Hep C

The greatest threat to American forces on the battlefield is obviously the enemy. But once back home, service members and veterans continue to face threats to their health and their lives. Sometimes these hazards are obvious, as in the case of physical injuries. But other lingering threats to the lives and health of service members are less obvious until its too late.

During the Vietnam War era, tens of thousands of service members were inadvertently infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Some received blood transfusions with contaminated blood. Others contracted the virus through battlefield blood exposure. Yet others got HCV from shared needles or other means.

Whatever the method of exposure, almost175,000 veterans in the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) today have been diagnosed with HCV, and as many as 45,000 more VA patients may have the virus but are undiagnosed.
When left untreated, HCV can cause severe liver damage, cirrhosis, liver cancer, and death. When these conditions set in, the need for a liver transplant is usually inevitable. This costly surgical procedure prolongs a veterans life, but it will not cure this fatal disease.

For some time, there have been HCV treatments available to veterans who have the virus. But unfortunately these treatments had less than a 50 percent chance of curing the disease, and the interferon injections as part of the treatment regimen were painful and often cause other side effects like severe depression or suicidal thoughts.

Now, however, recent breakthroughs in medicine have led to new treatment options for veterans with HCV. Unlike the older options, these new treatments are more than 95 percent effective in curing the disease with much less pain and side effects and do not include interferon. .

The VA has requested additional funding from Congress to enable the agency to treat veterans with HCV using these new drugs. The Appropriations Committee in the House just approved the VAs supplemental request to give more veterans these life-saving drugs, and for that we are grateful. But we hope that the Senate committee we go a step farther and include funding well above the House number for HCV in order to enable the VA to treat all veterans who became infected with the virus.

The modest up-front investment in treating and curing veterans with this disease can potentially save the VA and the American taxpayer tens of billions of dollars over the next ten years. The cost of a liver transplant alone can reach over a half-million dollars, and this does not even cure the veterans virus.

When one factors in a liver transplant and the care and medications needed before and after the transplant, its easy to see how the cost of HCV can easily reach a million dollars or more throughout each veterans life. But Congress and the VA can save that veteran from suffering and can save taxpayer dollars by making available to as many veterans as possible these new treatments now that can cure this virus forever in as little as twelve weeks.

Opportunities for curing previously fatal diseases like this dont come very often. Congress should seize this historic opportunity on HCV and appropriate the resources for the VA to cure every veteran who is infected with the virus. Its the very least we can do for them in exchange for all theyve done for us.

Berger is executive director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America.




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