Thousands of Florida prison inmates who have hepatitis C are not getting adequate medication and treatment — leaving them at risk for liver failure, liver cancer and death, according to a lawsuit filed against the Florida Department of Corrections.
The case, brought on behalf of three state prison inmates who have the disease, alleges that up to 40,000 state inmates could have some form of the disease, which can potentially be spread — not only among the prison population — but to the general public if not treated by the time an inmate is released.
The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Justice Institute, seeks an immediate injunction forcing the state prison system to start treating inmates with the disease by providing medications that have been approved and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Federal Drug Administration since 2013.
“The FDC recognizes that hepatitis C is a serious disease that is easy to cure,” said Randall C. Berg Jr., FJI’s executive director. “Yet it routinely fails to provide lifesaving medication to people incarcerated in Florida.”
The Institute maintains that FDC’s treatment rate is among the lowest in the nation, and that as many as 40,000 of the state’s 99,000 inmates could be infected.
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne disease caused by the hepatitis C virus (HCV). The virus causes inflammation that damages liver cells, and is a leading cause of liver disease and liver transplants. The virus is transmitted by infected blood and sexual activity. Intravenous drug use is the most common form of transmission in the United States. An estimated 2.7 to 3.9 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C, according to the CDC. Most people do not know they are infected, and the virus is more prevalent in the prison population.
Standard treatment of the disease was revolutionized in 2013 with the advent of direct-acting antiviral drugs, which cure 90 to 95 percent of patients, with little or no side effects, according to the CDC.
The complaint says that only five inmates were treated with the lifesaving medications.
Treating all inmates “would have a profound public health impact by significantly reducing the spread of the disease in the general population,” FJI said.
The Florida prison system maintains it has only about 5,000 inmates with the disease, but FJI disputes that figure because it claims that FDC doesn’t test inmates for the virus.
An FDC spokeswoman declined to comment, saying they had not yet seen the lawsuit.