Hepatitis C Coalition

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

Using the PR firm of Shandwick International, the Schering-Plough drug company created a network of state hepatitis C coalitions throughout the United States to build sales of Rebetron, their trademarked medication.

Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow exposed the practice in September 2000. "Showing all the signs of a thriving grass-roots movement, a host of new health-care groups are drawing attention to the perils of a contagious, sometimes lethal virus called hepatitis C," O'Harrow wrote. "But contrary to appearances, these coalitions are not spontaneous gatherings of concerned citizens. They are instead a key part of a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign funded by Schering-Plough Corp. to sell the primary therapy for hepatitis C, Rebetron, which costs $18,000 a year."[1]

O'Harrow added, "Medical ethics experts agree that more should be done to educate people about hepatitis C. But some say the Schering-funded coalitions raise troubling conflict-of-interest issues."[1]

Hepatitis C is a potentially life-threatening illness, but the progression of the disease is very slow. Most infected individuals don't even know they have the disease, and it may take decades or more for symptoms to develop. For many people this may not occur within their expected life span, so there is no medical consensus on who should receive drug therapy or when they should start.

Schering-Plough makes Rebetron, a hepatitis C medication that bundles interferon with ribavirin. It is considered the best available treatment for hepatitis C, but it only provides a long-term benefit to about half of patients who take it. Moreover, health activists have accused Schering-Plough of price gouging. Patients on Rebetron pay $18,000 per year, which is $12,000 more than they would pay if they could simply buy interferon and ribavirin separately through a compounding pharmacy.

Schering-Plough has also lobbied state state governments to mandate Rebetron treatment for all people in prisons with hepatitis C. There is no medical justification for such a broad use of therapy, but prisons are a large, accessible population of infected individuals, and at the prices that Schering-Plough has been charging, a captive patient population of this size would be a large cash cow.

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Sources

  1. 1.0 1.1 Robert O'Harrow Jr., [http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A52480-2000Sep11?language=printer Grass Roots Seeded by Drugmaker Schering-Plough Uses 'Coalitions' to Sell Costly Treatment"], Washington Post, September 12, 2000; Page A01.

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