Fox News' Irresponsible, Weak Reporting of Hep C 'Outbreak'

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Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 2.10.12 PMFox Health News really dropped the ball on this one, but it had help.

The news site's article, "Utah fears thousands infected in hepatitis C outbreak after exposure to hospital nurse," was so inaccurate and unnecessarily scary that I had to read the piece three times -- to find anything that was correct. And even then, the correct part that I managed to find was contradicted by the same person in the same article. Now that's nice work.

First, contrary to the headline, there is no such thing as a "hepatitis C outbreak." This term implies that the viral infection is highly contagious, such as flu, but it is anything but. It is transmitted almost entirely by blood. Unlike HIV, sexual transmission is either rare, or non-existent (this has been debated for years), so to call what happened in Utah "an outbreak" is either sloppy reporting, a bogus scare -- or both.

This becomes obvious given a rather dubious statement from Dr. Angela Dunn, a physician with the Utah Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We do consider this an outbreak...," she said, "When we have two or more hepatitis C-related infections, we consider it an outbreak. This makes me wonder what she would call three cases, especially since there are 3.2 million people in the United States, and 170 million worldwide, who are infected.

Worse still are the implied implications of the infection, as well as the conflicting advice about what the people who may have been exposed should do.

According to Dr. Dunn, "it [is] important for everyone contacted to be tested because symptoms of hepatitis C can lay dormant for decades."

An obvious question: If the infection is asymptomatic for 30 years, and then still curable, then what is the rush?

Answer: There isn't one.

And then, Dr. Dunn said this: People can have no symptoms for decades and then all of the sudden their liver will start failing and that s a deadly part of the disease ... [s]o it s important to be identified early in the disease court [sic] when people don t have symptoms so they can get effective treatment.

Somehow, Dr. Dunn managed to contradict herself, and got both things wrong in the process. This is not so easy, yet she did it anyhow. People who wait a year before being tested will be cured 95-100 percent of the time, just like people who wait for a week, or for 20 years. No it is not critically important to be tested and to begin treatment right away.

I have written about just this. After Vertex got FDA approval for Incivek the first successful specific anti-HCV inhibitor it was clear that, although it worked better than the previous treatment, it still had a number of drawbacks. At the same time, infectious disease specialists were following the results of drugs that were in late stage clinical trials.

Although these drugs were about a year behind Incivek, they looked so good and one of them, Sovaldi, turned out to be be just that, and then some that doctors advised their patients to wait (about a year) until the second generation drugs came out. They did just that (at the expense of Vertex, which did the backbreaking work, and nonetheless got hammered for its efforts) and almost all of them are now cured 20-30 years after they were infected. If they can wait a year, so can people who were just infected.

Yet, if taken at face value, between the Fox News article, and Dr. Dunn's questionable advice, you might think that the end of the world is mere hours away. The reality is that having patients exposed to HCV by a nurse is inexcusable, but this is not a catastrophe. It is far from good, but is something than can be managed successfully.

Bad advice. Bad reporting. It's a good thing that we at the American Council catch these things. Cause no one else does.