At least 150 million people in the world have a chronic liver disease called hepatitis C, according to the World Health Organization. Hepatitis C runs the gamut from a mild disease to a deadly one. While there's no vaccine to prevent it, researchers have found a combination of drugs that cures many difficult cases.
Researchers have been looking for ways to cure or prevent hepatitis C infections. Hepatitis C is contagious, and it can cause liver failure, liver cancer and death.
“Chronic hepatitis C infection is the leading reason why we have liver transplantation in the United States," said Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institutes of Health.
Fauci headed a study that focused on patients who lived in poor, urban areas, mostly African-American who already had liver disease. These patients were given a new drug, sofosbuvir, which has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“Sofosbuvir is an agent that acts directly against the hepatitis C virus itself. It interferes with one of the enzymes that’s important for this virus to replicate itself," Fauci said.
The patients also received rivavirin, an older drug that fights hepatitis C. After receiving both drugs for a period of time, between 50 and 70 percent of the patients were cured. They did not have the hepatitis C virus in their blood.
The treatment excluded interferon - a drug frequently given by injection to combat the disease.
Interferon can cause serious effects that make it difficult to take, but the combination of drugs given in the trial had minimal side effects, and none of the patients dropped out.
Hepatitis C is considered a silent killer because most people don't know they have it until the disease is advanced. Catching it early prevents liver cancer and liver failure, and improves the odds of a cure, which is why Fauci says aggressive screening is as important as finding drugs that are easy to take.
“The idea of getting these people diagnosed and, if they need it, to get them into a treatment regimen is a very important public health imperative," he said.
The study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.