A Better Weapon for the Hepatitis C Arsenal

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 30, 2000 (Dallas) -- A new, more effective treatment may be in the offing to treat the leading cause of liver cancer, chronic hepatitis C, according to results of a study reported here Monday at a meeting of liver disease experts.

The researchers of the new study say that a combination of a new medication, called peginterferonalfa-2b (PegIFN), and an older drug, ribavirin, is more effective in fighting the illness than the current standard therapy. Moreover, the treatment causes no more side effects than the current standard of using ribavirin combined with another drug.

Hepatitis C is a virus that can be transmitted by contaminated blood or by unprotected sexual contact with an infected person. The illness generally is contracted through intravenous drug use, but it also can be passed on by sharing intranasal cocaine straws, razors, and toothbrushes. In 1992, initiation of a screening test to detect the illness in blood made transmission through transfusions rare.

The virus attacks the liver and can remain in the system for many years, causing progressive damage and raising the risk of liver cancer. However, many victims have the disease for years without having symptoms. Hepatitis C kills up to 10,000 people each year, and there is no cure.

Lead researcher Michael Manns, MD, of the Medical School of Hannover in Germany, presented findings from the study that indicated a significantly higher rate of success using the new regimen over a 24-week period when compared with the older treatment. The study involved more than 1,500 chronic hepatitis C patients with an average age of 44. Men made up 66% of the study group, which reflects the makeup of the approximately 4 million Americans with the disease.

One important difference between the old and new treatments is that the newer drug is given only once a week, rather than three times a week. Manns says this is an advantage for patients. It also allows for a more constant level of drugs in the bloodstream, which is better able to suppress the virus.

"In principal, the virus is curable," Manns tells WebMD.

No vaccine is available for hepatitis C, and current treatment standards have only been effective for some patients. U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher recently wrote a letter to the American public calling HCV a "Silent epidemic." It is only the second time a national warning has been issued for a health crisis; the first time was for AIDS.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Merle Diamond, MD
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