Dr. Jolien Steyl

Dr. Jolien Steyl

Williams Lake gets Hepatitis C clinic

Waiting times for people seeking treatment to cure Hepatitis C will be shorter now that a new clinic has opened in Williams Lake.

Waiting times for people in the Cariboo seeking treatment to cure Hepatitis C will be shorter now that a new clinic has opened in Williams Lake.

Every month Dr. Alexandra King and clinical research nurse Shawn Sharma will run the clinic for a few days out of the Atwood Clinic in co-operation with local family doctor Jolien Steyl, who already runs an HIV-Aids clinic.

“As a family doctor it’s been a nightmare getting patients treated,” Steyl said. “They either have to travel really far or they don’t get started on treatment because the waiting lists are long.”

King and Sharma work at the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre (VIDC) where King  is an internal medicine specialist.

King has been coming to Williams Lake providing internal medicine services to the community for almost two years as part of a Doctors of BC pilot project.

“The family doctors here are really amazing, they manage so many people, different diseases and complexities really well, “ King said. “But when they run into problems or questions they need to be able to send the patients to another doctor to be able to take a second look.”

Before the clinic opened, Hepatitis C patients normally travelled to Kamloops or Kelowna, however, the waiting lists were months long and when they did get an appointment it was often done over the phone, Steyl said.

As well, eligibility for the treatment requires patients to have a fibre scan, which is an ultrasound that basically measures the amount of scar tissue on the liver and the advancement of the disease.

To meet that requirement, Sharma will bring a fibre scan machine to Williams Lake each month, which Steyl said will be a huge time saver. Before patients travelled to Vancouver or Kelowna to have the scan, or they would have to have a biopsy which is very invasive.

Hepatitis C is a virus that attacks the liver and tends to last many years. For the longest time there wasn’t a cure and then the cure that was available was a “really bad cure,” King said.

Under the old treatment, patients ingested 18 pills a day and had an injection once a week, with treatment lasting as long as 48 to 70 weeks.

“It was almost like a chemotherapy type of regiment,” King said. “And people went through this horrible therapy and then had a 40 per cent chance of being cured.”

Since 2010, the available treatment is seeing 90 to 95 per cent effectiveness, Sharma said, noting people take the drugs for eight to 12 weeks, with a small number of people going for 24 weeks.

“The new medicine is one pill a day with very few side effects,” Sharma said.

The drugs are very expensive, costing  $74,500 for a 12-week treatment, but treatment is important because with time Hepatitis C progresses into liver cancer or failure, King said.

King and Sharma have seen that being treated and hopefully cured becomes a tool of empowerment.

“People manage to beat something they thought they would live with forever,” King said.

Family doctors that have patients with Hepatitis C and patients seen in the Methadone Clinic will be referred to Steyl as the primary starting point.

“I will liaise with Dr. King and Shawn,” Steyl said, noting the clinic is the best thing that could have happened for Williams Lake.