Hepatitis C Treatments Give Patients More Options
Transformative advances in drug treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are giving the 3.2 million Americans with chronic hepatitis C a chance for a longer, healthier life without the virus. That’s good news for baby boomers—who make up three of four adults with the hepatitis C virus—and millions of other Americans, many of whom don’t yet know they are infected and carriers.
Hepatitis C can be cured, and today’s drug therapies are very effective and easier for patients to take, says Jeffrey S. Murray, M.D., an internist at the FDA who specializes in infectious diseases.
Hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) refers to a group of viral infections that affect the liver. The most common types are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Each is caused by a different virus.
Hepatitis C is the most common chronic blood-borne infection in the United States. There is no vaccine for this disease, but new cases of hepatitis C can be prevented by avoiding behaviors that can spread the virus—including sharing needles, syringes or other equipment to inject drugs.
A diagnosis of hepatitis C no longer means months and months of painful drug injections, which for decades were the only option. Science is making strides in therapies, giving patients new alternatives.
“Interferon-based injections often make patients feel ill and give them flulike symptoms,” Murray says. The treatment by interferon also lasts six months to a year, and cures only 40% to 50% of hepatitis C patients.
“Patients with very advanced liver disease couldn’t take the traditional treatment because often those injections could make them worse,” he adds. “Now, patients can treat their hepatitis C with only pills—drug combinations that are faster and have a higher cure rate.”
Today’s pills have double the viral cure rates—90% to 100%—in just in 12 weeks’ time. Reducing the treatment from a year to three months is a huge advantage for people with hepatitis C, especially because it’s easier to swallow a pill than to get an injection, Murray says.
In recent years, FDA has approved multiple all-oral combination regimens, including drugs from multiple classes without the need to co-administer interferon. Patients should discuss the treatment options that would be appropriate for them with their health care provider.
For most people, hepatitis is a silent disease until it causes substantial damage to the liver. That process may take several years, and can lead to liver failure with the need for liver transplantation, and can also lead to liver cancer.