Hepatitis C (HCV) is a viral infection of the liver that can cause serious health problems. It can even be fatal if it’s not treated properly and before damage to the liver becomes too great. Fortunately, HCV cure rates are improving. Recently approved drugs and greater public awareness of the disease have contributed to this trend. Some medications are boasting a cure rate of more than 90 percent.
This marks a significant and encouraging development because mortality rates due to HCV were on the rise. Cure rates are improving, but the condition should still be taken seriously. Seek treatment as soon as you’re aware of potential infection.
The virus is usually transmitted through using shared needles to inject drugs. The disease is a blood-borne illness, so casual contact with an infected person isn’t likely to transmit the virus. In rare cases, the virus may be transmitted in a clinical setting by an infected medical needle.
Before the screening of donated blood became standard in 1992, tainted blood products were responsible for the spread of the virus.
One of the great challenges in treating HCV is that it can be in your system for years before you notice any symptoms. By then, some liver damage has already occurred. The most common symptoms are:
- dark urine
- jaundice, the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes
- abdominal pain
If you’re at risk for having contracted HCV, you should get tested before any symptoms appear. Anyone born between 1945 and 1965 should get tested once. The same is true for anyone currently injecting drugs or who injected drugs at least once, even if it was many years ago. Other screening criteria include those who are HIV-positive and who received a blood transfusion or organ transplant before July 1992.
For many years, one of the only effective treatment options was the drug interferon. This drug required many injections over a period of six months to a year. The drug also produced unpleasant symptoms. Many people who took this drug felt like they had the flu after their treatment. Interferon treatments were only effective about half the time, and they couldn’t be given to people with advanced HCV because it could worsen their health.
An oral drug called ribavirin was also available at this time. This drug had to be taken with interferon injections.
More modern treatments include oral medications that shorten the time needed to be effective. One of the first to emerge was sofosbuvir (Sovaldi). Unlike other early treatments, this drug didn’t require interferon injections to be effective.
In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a combination drug made up of ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (Harvoni). It’s a once-daily medication in a class of drugs called direct-acting antivirals. These drugs work on the enzymes that help the virus multiply.
Treatments approved after Harvoni were designed to target people with different genotypes. A genotype can refer to a set of genes or even one gene.
Researchers have found that different drugs are more effective based on a patient’s genotype.
Among the drugs approved from 2014 on are simeprevir (Olysio), to be used in combination with sofosbuvir, and daclatasvir (Daklinza). Another combination drug, composed of ombitasvir, paritaprevir, and ritonavir (Technivie) was also very effective in clinical trials. One percent of people taking Technivie experienced elevated liver enzyme levels. This abnormal liver function was seen primarily in women taking birth control pills. Other drugs are available based on genotype and prior treatment history.
Interferon injections had a cure rate of about 40 to 50 percent. Newer pill treatments have cure rates of nearly 100 percent. In clinical trials, Harvoni, for example, achieved a cure rate of about 94 percent after 12 weeks. Other drugs and combination medications had similarly high cure rates in that same time frame.
You’re considered cured once tests show your body is clear of the infection. Having HCV doesn’t necessarily harm your future health and life expectancy. You may go on to live a normal, healthy life after treatment.
If the virus was in your system for many years, substantial damage to your liver might have occurred. You may develop a condition called cirrhosis, which is a scarring of the liver. If the scarring is severe, your liver may not be able to function properly. The liver filters blood and metabolizes medications. If these functions are hindered, you could face serious health challenges, including liver failure.
That’s why it’s so important to get tested for HCV. Get treatment as soon as you can if you test positive.
You should also know that while it’s unusual, it’s possible to become reinfected with the virus. This can happen if you’re still injecting drugs and engaging in other risky behavior. If you want to prevent a reinfection, avoid sharing needles and use a condom with a new partner or someone who may have injected drugs in the past.
Hepatitis C is far more curable now than it was a few years ago. Still, you should take preventive steps to maintain or achieve good health.