New drugs are making big improvements in the way you get treated for hepatitis C. More and more, the goal of a "cure" is now in reach.
As treatments get better, nearly everyone with hep C may be able to look forward to a disease-free future.
The Road to a Cure
The goal of your treatment is to get rid of the hepatitis C in your body. You're considered cured if you don't have any virus in your blood 6 months after you stop taking medicine.
A turning point in finding a cure came when doctors began treating the disease with interferon in the 1990s. The drug boosts your immune system, your body's defense against germs, to help it fight off the hep C virus.
Next came the use of ribavirin, another drug that fights the virus. You take it with interferon to improve treatment. Thanks to this combo, the cure rate jumped from less than 5% in the 1980s to about 50% by the early 2000s.
But interferon and ribavirin can give you side effects, including muscle aches, fever, nausea, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. You also need to take them for up to 48 weeks to see results.
In 2011, the FDA approved two new drugs: boceprevir (Victrelis) and telaprevir (Incivek). They stop the virus from making a copy of itself.
Combining telaprevir or boceprevir with interferon and ribavirin pushed success rates as high as 70%. But the drug combination still wasn't ideal.
"Adding that third drug increased the side effects tremendously," says Anna Lok, MD.
The New Standard in Hepatitis C Treatment
In 2013 and 2014, the FDA approved three new drugs:
- Simeprevir (Olysio)
- Sofosbuvir (Sovaldi)
- Ledipasvir-sofosbuvir (Harvoni)
You take simeprevir with interferon and ribavirin. The combo clears the hep C virus in up to 80% of people who take it.
Ledipasvir-sofosbuvir can be taken without interferon and ribavirin. Sofosbuvir can be used without interferon for people with some types of hep C.
Sofosbuvir comes in an easy once-a-day pill. It takes as few as 12 weeks to work, and it cures up to 90% of people who take it.
"Being able to give a treatment that is one pill a day with few side effects is very attractive," Lok says. "This is why everyone is very excited."
Other new interferon-free drugs are expected to come along in the next year or two, she says.
The Cost of a Cure
The new drugs aren't cheap. A full course of treatment can cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Check with your insurance company, and also ask your doctor if you can take advantage of drug company programs that give financial assistance.