The health ministry is set to roll out a National Programme for Control of Viral Hepatitis from the 2018-19 financial year, for which a budget of Rs 600 crore for the next three years has been approved. With the focus on Hepatitis C, an anti-viral treatment that costs $63,000-94,000 for the full course in the US and Europe will be provided free at all government health set-ups.
About 1.2 crore people are reported to be suffering from Hepatitis C in the country — six times the number of HIV/AIDS patients.
Hepatitis C is caused by a blood-borne virus which affects the liver. It could spread through use of injectable drugs, unsafe injection practises, unsafe health care, and transfusion of unscreened blood and blood products. However, unlike Hepatitis B, it is not sexually transmitted. There is no known vaccine for Hepatitis C. A significant number of people infected with Hepatitis C develop cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer, which are responsible for a bulk of the 3,99,000 Hepatitis C deaths annually across the world, according to WHO estimates.
The health ministry is looking at screening vulnerable groups, including drug users and people who underwent surgeries/ blood transfusion before 2002, when the screening protocol was not robust. Taking a lead from similar programmes in Punjab and Haryana, where governments have negotiated the prices of Hepatitis C drugs, the ministry is in informal talks with Indian companies which manufacture Sofosbuvir on behalf of American pharma giant Gilead, to negotiate the price for a national programme.
“The drug is manufactured by Gilead and costs anything between $63,000-94,000 for the full course. It is obviously not possible for any government to pay those prices, but because they were looking to expand in India and given the size of the market, Gilead brought in various Indian companies to do the manufacturing and provide it at lower prices. Punjab negotiated the price to around Rs 7,000 for the full course. Haryana got it for a little less. We are hoping to roll it out nationally for a little less than Rs 5,000 for the full course, to be paid by the government. It will be available free of cost to patients,” said a senior health ministry official.
Sofosbuvir is recommended under the new WHO treatment guidelines for Hepatitis C. Punjab started the free treatment of all Hepatitis C patients in June 2016. While the annual budget includes the cost of developing state laboratories, purchase of drugs and diagnostic equipment, a proposal to develop regional testing centres was not cleared at a meeting of the Empowered Programme Committee of the National Health Mission held last month.