Published on October 14, 2013

Hepatitis C: Confronting Philadelphia’s silent epidemic

How hepatitis C is affecting Philadelphia.

Margie RichardsonWhen Margie Richardson, 57, tested positive for the hepatitis C virus in 1998 she was completely shocked. She had no history of IV drug use and would go to her doctor annually for check-ups.

“I had a terrible itch and my skin was drying out and I was very tired,” recalls Margie. “My doctor suggested I get tested for hepatitis C. The blood work came back and turns out that’s what I had. I couldn't believe it. I was nervous and very scared. It came out of left field.”

A Hepatitis C education

Hepatitis C is a disease that primarily affects the liver, and comes from the hepatitis C virus. The hepatitis C virus is usually spread through blood-to-blood contact, primarily through intravenous drug use, unprotected sex and tattoos using unsterilized equipment. The danger with hepatitis C is that patients can have it for years without knowing it, and by then the disease can do immense damage to the liver, including cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver, liver cancer and liver failure.

Luckily, Margie was referred to Dr. Mervyn Danilewitz, a board-certified gastroenterologist at Mercy Philadelphia who specializes in liver diseases and runs a liver clinic at the hospital. Dr. Danilewitz has made it a priority to detect and treat hepatitis C in the Philadelphia area. It’s an illness he calls a “silent epidemic” due to the high numbers of people who are living with hepatitis C and don’t know they have it.

“Hepatitis C is an epidemic that is affecting many in our community, and in many instances, it’s going unrecognized,” says Dr. Danilewitz.

Margie underwent a liver biopsy to determine the extent of liver damage caused by the virus, and additional blood work was done.

“The biopsy showed evidence of stage-two fibrosis; in other words the liver had not gone into cirrhosis, but it showed significant damage – it was quite advanced,” says Dr. Danilewitz. “She was lethargic and extremely fatigued.”

“The doctor was very good. He made me feel comfortable and gave me the ins and outs of the virus,” says Margie. “He also gave me a lot of literature about it, about what could happen and what to do to protect myself. I became well informed. I found out that my liver was starting to deteriorate. I immediately stopped drinking; in fact, I haven't had a drink since.”

Sticking with a treatment regimen

Dr. Danilewitz prescribed what is called triple therapy for Margie: ribavirin, interferon and Incivek, the most recently approved antiviral medication for hepatitis C.

“I was really apprehensive about the treatment that the doctor had prescribed,” Margie remembers. “And I thought, ‘Do you want to try to get better? Or do you want to live like this?’ I decided I wanted to get better.”

The treatment regimen proved exhausting for Margie and was fraught with side effects. According to Dr. Danilewitz, a major side effect from interferon is flu-like symptoms; ribavirin can cause anemia and Incivek can cause skin rashes.

“I had chills, fatigue and no appetite,” says Margie. “I had to force myself to eat.”

But she stuck with it, and within three months of treatment, Margie showed no detection of the virus.

Margie urges others to get tested

Dr. Danilewitz credits Margie’s never-give-up attitude as a major component in her recovery.

“A patient’s attitude is extremely important while receiving treatment because if they get frustrated and don't continue, then all is lost,” he says. “They must have a good attitude, and the determination to continue and they’ll stand a much better chance of being cured.”

Now that she’s cured of hepatitis C, Margie emphasizes the importance of being tested.

“I feel great now,” she says. “If anyone is in a high risk group I urge them to get tested. I wish I wouldn't have waited so long. After fourteen years of having this disease I'm cured.”

“My doctor was great and held my hand through a lot of it,” she added. “I'm not sure I could have done it without him.”