Hepatitis C survivor says treatment was grueling but worth it, encourages others to participate in promising drug trials at Parkland’s Amelia Court
Seven years ago, Bill Humston was dual diagnosed with HIV and Hepatitis C.
Although he showed no symptoms, his Hep C viral load was off the charts.
Doctors at Parkland hospital’s Amelia Court encouraged Humston to participate in a research study.
However, since he was asymptomatic and had heard about the negative side effects of Hep C treatment, Humston declined.
“Every time I went to Amelia Court, my T-cells were dropping and my [Hep C] viral load was going up,”
Humston said. But because he was already feeling run down, Humston didn’t want to add to his problems.
“I worried about hair loss,” he said. “I was already suffering fatigue.”
Finally, Humston’s physician at Amelia Court, who was conducting Hep C drug trials, convinced him to participate.
What followed was a grueling six-month regiment involving eight pills a day, along with a weekly injection of interferon — a powerful treatment he administered on Friday so he could recover during the weekend and return to work on Monday.
Humston lost his appetite and 30 pounds, but he’s since gained it back. Doctors have declared him cured of Hep C, and he says he feels better than he has in years.
“I’m so glad I stuck with it,” Humston said.
Now, Humston wants to get the word out that while it may be difficult, there is a cure for Hep C. And researchers like Humston’s physician at Parkland, Dr. Mamta Jain, say they’re excited about new treatments on the horizon that will be more effective with fewer side effects.
More people die each year from Hepatitis C than from AIDS, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
In Dallas County, the number of reported Hep C cases tripled from 2003 to 2010.
Dallas County Health and Human Services Director Zach Thompson said in 2012, 11,082 tests for Hep C returned positive in the county. Most at risk of infection are people with multiple sexual partners, injection drug users, men who have sex with men and commercial sex workers, he said. Baby boomers have the highest infection rate, so anyone born between 1946 and 1965 is encouraged to get tested.
Thompson described Hepatitis as a group of viral diseases that attack the liver. Types A and B can be prevented with a vaccine.
Hepatitis A, also known as infectious hepatitis, lasts from a few weeks to a few months and is contracted from contaminated food or water. Hepatitis B, also known as serum hepatitis, may be a mild infection lasting a few weeks to a severe, lifelong illness. It spreads through contact of body fluids usually during sex or through needle-sharing.
Gay men are encouraged to be vaccinated for both A and B, but there is no vaccine for Hep C.
Shared needles are the most common transmission method for Hep C. But the virus is not spread only among injection drug users. It can be transmitted through tattoo needles as well. If the needle picks up the infection and is dipped in ink, the ink becomes infected and can be picked up and transmitted to another person even if the needle is changed, Jain said.
Other shared sharp objects, like razors, may also spread the virus, which can live outside the body longer than HIV.
Although Hep C is not transmitted efficiently through sex, the disease is more prevalent in gay men than the general population. Because it requires blood to blood transmission, Jain believes Hep C infection occurs during rougher sex when blood vessels might be more likely to break.
Hep C begins as an acute illness. After the initial infection, the disease becomes chronic with few symptoms other than fatigue — but silently works on the liver and in many cases results in cirrhosis or liver cancer.
“Patients with AIDS have faster progression to cirrhosis,” Jain said.
People leave Hep C untreated for a number of reasons. Jain said some don’t realize there’s a cure. Others have heard about the side-effects or worry about complying with taking drugs multiple times a day. And some ignore the disease since progression from infection to cirrhosis takes years.
Jain said drugs she’ll be administering in trials over the next year have fewer side effects and can be taken just once a day. One regimen doesn’t include the injection of Interferon.
In fact, Jain said she hasn’t been so excited about a new drug treatment since combination therapy for HIV began to control that virus in the 1990s. The latest treatment for Hep C has a 70 percent cure rate, but what about the 30 percent who develop a resistance to some of the drugs that prevents them from working?
“We’re waiting for a new class of drugs to attack the virus at a different level,” she said.
Humston described Hep C as something he just got used to having. Not until he was rid of it did he even realize how run down he’d become.
Of all those participating in the UT Southwestern drug trial, Humston’s Hep C viral load was the highest. Since he was cured of hepatitis, his T-cell count is the highest it’s been since he was first diagnosed with HIV.
But it wasn’t easy.
Throughout the study, Humston said he felt dehydrated. He couldn’t eat anything with flavor and lived on baked potatoes. He suffered from dry mouth and his skin wrinkled.
Humston credited UT Southwestern Clinical Research Manager Tia Petersen, who took weekly blood draws and monitored his progress in the study, as being the hero in his recovery.
“She encouraged me to keep going,” he said. “I wouldn’t have completed the study without her.”
Petersen said some have a harder time with the HCV treatment than others but those with a good attitude can do better. One of her patients trained for a marathon during his treatment and ran it soon after completing therapy.
Humston also credits Clint, a dog he rescued last summer after he began the drug trial.
Clint had been hit by a car in Garland and was taken to the pound. A friend who works with rescue animals called Humston and told him she had a great dog that was about to be put down.
He wasn’t sure he wanted another dog, but once he met Clint, he couldn’t resist him.
“He was energetic and a great companion,” he said.
The two recovered together.
Patients sought for Hep C trials
Those who’ve been diagnosed with both Hepatitis C and HIV and are interested in participating in a Hepatitis C drug trial can contact Tia Petersen at Amelia Court at 214-590-0611 or Michelle Mba at AIDS Arms at 972-807-7370. You do not need to be a current patient at either Amelia Court or AIDS Arms to participate in drug trials.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 16, 2013.