Doc's Crusade to Cure his Own Hep-C

By Jed Bickman 10/20/11

Hepatitis C is often caught from used needles and is difficult to detect—but it can be cured, as one researcher demonstrated on himself.

Physician, heal thyself: Dr. Douglas Dieterich Photo via

When Dr. Douglas Deiterich contracted Hepatitis C as a med student—he accidentally pricked himself with a contaminated needle—the disease didn’t even have a name; they just called it “Non-A, Non-B Hepatitis.” For the next 20 years, he struggled with a poorly understood and highly stigmatized disease. “Death definitely did not escape my mind,” he said of 1980s, when he was most sick. But ten years ago, Dr. Dieterich cured himself with one of the treatments he helped to develop. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through,” he said. Hepatitis C is often transmitted via unsafe intravenous drug use. The disease can be cured, but for a long time the only available drugs caused severe side-effects and were very expensive. The biggest barrier to treating Hep C is recognizing it: a carrier can have no symptoms for years. Most of the estimated 3.2 million Americans with the disease don’t know they have it. But even in the absence of symptoms, the longer they wait before getting tested and treated, the more difficult the disease will be to cure—ironically, the patients who have severe symptoms right away are better off, because they get treatment at an earlier stage. Rates of Hepatitis C have been falling since the 1980s, in part due to vigilant screening by doctors, but also due to preventive measures. Areas that allow harm reduction programs for intravenous drug use—from needle exchanges to more controversial measures like the Insite clinic in Vancouver, where drug users can inject in a safe environment—have significantly lower rates of Hepatitis C infections: more studies need to be done, but many show at least a 20% reduction in new Hepatitis C infections due to harm reduction programs. Meanwhile, treatment has gotten more advanced—though it remains expensive—and the disease can be cured in 40-80% of cases. Two new medicines have been approved, and Dr. Dieterich reports that 200 more are in the approval process: “Now that we have the tools, we have to start kicking some viral butt!”

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.