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hepatitis C |Woman’s death calls attention to costly hepatitis C medication

An Ottawa woman’s death has intensified a conversation about whether provinces should be responsible for funding a costly hepatitis C medication.

Brenda Peever died on Nov. 4 after struggling with complications from hepatitis C. Now, her daughter, Jennifer, is speaking out about the family’s three-year fight to fund life-saving treatment.

Jennifer Peever says her family’s saga started when her mother contracted hepatitis C after receiving a tainted blood transfusion. Peever’s mother was later identified as a candidate for an effective — but unaffordable — drug.

After receiving this news, Peever began a petition online and fought to convince the government to fund her mother’s treatment. Today, she’s fighting to raise the money to pay for her mother’s burial.

“The story needs to be told. She died because of red tape,” Peever told CTV Ottawa recently.

Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease that affects the liver. According to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control, the virus often begins as an “acute infection.” But unlike hepatitis A, hepatitis C remains in some bodies even after the initial infection, causing chronic liver problems.

The Canadian Liver Foundation estimates 250,000 Canadians are infected with hepatitis C. An estimated 500 people a year die from liver failure.

Peever says that number could go down if the government would fund an anti-viral drug called Sovaldi.

Health Canada approved the drug in January, and the results have been impressive so far.

Dr. Curtis Cooper, an infectious disease specialist at the Ottawa Hospital, says that the drug has a 90- to 100-per-cent cure rate after only 12 weeks of treatment.

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But the medication comes at a cost: more than $650 a pill.

At that rate, the three-month treatment works out to more than $55,000. Peever said her mother was quoted $84,000.

“The day she died was the day they told her she couldn’t have the medicine because she didn’t have any money,” Peever said.

Last spring, the company behind the drug, Gilead, told CTV News that the price of Sovaldi is fair. The company said in an email that Sovaldi’s cost evens out to the same price patients would pay for other medication and health-care visits.

“While Sovaldi greatly enhances the standard of care, it was priced such that the total regimen cost is similar to prior standard-of-care regimens,” the email said.

Quebec is currently the only Canadian province that funds the Sovaldi. Some private insurance providers also pay for the drug.

Donna Hess found out she was infected with hepatitis C after a career in nursing. Her private insurance paid for treatment, and she said the results were “shocking.”

“I had lived with it for many years, and so to find out — and then have the drug available and be able to take it and get cured — is to me quite a miracle,” Hess told CTV News.

Hess said she believes people without private insurance should also have access to the drug.

Peever and the 66,000 people who signed her petition agree.

“I begged for help for my mom. I begged for it. I have 66,000 people that signed that petition but yet nobody listened,” Peever said.

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She said she isn’t asking the province to fund treatment for non-life-threatening cases of hepatitis C, but to provide life-saving medication to those dying from the disease. “My mom was Stage 4. There is no stage after that. Why not give it to her? Why not?”

Looking to the future, Peever said it is difficult to imagine what she will do now that her mother is gone. For now, she’s just trying to focus on fundraising to pay for a funeral and burial.

“I can’t even grieve. The fight is still going,” Peever said. “My mom was my heart. I know she’s going to give me the strength to pull through. I just don’t see it yet.”

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