Important New Developments in
Treating Hepatitis C
By Carl West, MD
Hepatitis C is a form of chronic
liver disease that results in 8,000 to 10,000 deaths in the United States each
year. People suffering complications from hepatitis C can develop jaundice,
internal bleeding, malnutrition, and kidney damage. Hepatitis C is the leading
cause of liver failure, for which the only viable treatment is liver
Until recently the standard
treatment for hepatitis C has been only somewhat successful, curing just under 50 percent of patients. However, in 2011 the Food and
Drug Administration approved two new drugs, Victrelis and Incivek. When used in
conjunction with the standard treatment, these new medications have increased
the cure rate for hepatitis C to about 70 percent. In addition, there are newer
drugs currently being studied that appear to offer even higher levels of cure
with fewer side effects. We expect these medications to be available in about
What if I was treated for hepatitis
C before and I was not cured?
Following FDA approval of Victrelis
and Incivek, my colleagues and I called our patients with hepatitis C who were
not cured after following the standard therapy and invited them to come back in
for the new treatment. We’ve had very good success, our patients have responded
well, and our cure rate reflects the national cure rate of approximately 70
What is the new treatment protocol?
The treatment protocol for
hepatitis C lasts for 24 to 48 weeks and it can have some unpleasant side
effects, including fatigue, skin rash, and low white-blood-cell count. The
protocol requires a weekly shot of interferon and daily pills to enhance the
impact of the interferon. One of the new medications is added to this standard treatment
regimen and while it may increase the side effects, it can also shorten the
duration of treatment.
How do you know the treatment has
As treatment progresses we measure
the virus counts by drawing blood samples. Prior to treatment it is not unusual
for the virus count of someone with hepatitis C to measure in the millions. Our
goal is for the virus count to become undetectable within a few weeks of
treatment and with these new drugs we are able to accomplish this in the
majority of patients. It is very gratifying to see a patient’s virus count go from
10 to 20 million to virtually nothing.
What if I have already suffered
liver damage from hepatitis C?
Studies have shown that if patients
with liver damage undergo successful therapy for hepatitis C and the virus is
eliminated, the liver can partially recover from the damage. This is an
important incentive for people who have undergone the standard treatment for
hepatitis C with no success.
How do people contract hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is only acquired by
blood-to-blood contact. This can happen by sharing a syringe or sharing a razor
blade. Nurses and doctors are at increased risk because they can get accidently
stuck with a needle while treating a patient. Rescue personnel at the scene of
a bloody accident are also at higher risk if they suffer a cut in the line of
duty. Blood transfusions were not screened for hepatitis C until the 1980s, so
people who received transfusions prior to that time are at higher risk.
There is a widespread misconception
that once you have hepatitis C there is no cure, but this is not true. The new
treatment is very promising. If you have been treated for hepatitis C in the
past with no success, I urge you to try again for a cure with the new drugs now
West is board certified in gastroenterology and internal medicine. He is on the
medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is in practice with Gastroenterology
Associates of Ithaca, where he can be reached at (607) 272-5011.