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Keywords:

  • thalassaemia;
  • blood transfusion;
  • hepatitis C virus;
  • interferon;
  • ribavirin

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is common in multi-transfused thalassaemic patients, and, in combination with transfusional iron overload, can result in progressive liver disease. Therapy with interferon-alpha causes a sustained loss of HCV in only 15–25% of patients, and there is as yet no established effective therapy for those who fail to respond. We have conducted a pilot study of combination anti-viral therapy for patients who failed to respond, or relapsed after an initial response to single-agent interferon-alpha. Patients were treated for 6 months with interferon-alpha 2b, given subcutaneously three mega units thrice weekly, together with ribavirin, orally 1 g daily. 11 patients were enrolled, their median age was 24.9 years. 8/10 evaluable patients had cirrhosis on biopsy, five were infected with HCV type 1 and all but one had initial HCV RNA titres > 106 genomes/ml. Five patients (45.5%) had a sustained virological response with loss of serum HCV RNA for > 6 months after finishing therapy. There was no clear association between response to therapy and age, histology, HCV genotype, or HCV RNA titre. Transfusion requirements were significantly increased during the treatment phase, probably due to ribavirin-induced haemolysis, and this necessitated intensification of iron chelation therapy. Serum ferritin levels decreased significantly in those who responded. These results suggest that combination therapy is potent in clearing HCV infection, and may provide effective second-line therapy for thalassaemic patients who have failed to respond to interferon-alpha monotherapy.