Abstract The natural history of chronic hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection and intervention with antiviral therapy are closely linked issues that cause the greatest controversy and concern for the person infected with HCV, as well as for the clinician involved in the assessment and treatment of people with chronic HCV infection. The outstanding challenge of natural history is to identify the person who is likely to develop serious liver disease, and to make that determination early in the course of chronic HCV infection when treatment is likely to be of the greatest benefit. Significant advances in the therapy of chronic HCV infection have occurred over the past decade. A sustained virological response (SVR), defined as undetectable HCV-RNA in blood 6 months after completing antiviral treatment, is the best indicator of a beneficial treatment effect. Relapse, breakthrough or non-response should all be regarded as unsuccessful outcomes of therapy. Interferons are still the mainstay of antiviral therapy for chronic HCV infection. The combination of interferon and ribavirin has improved SVR by decreasing the relapse rate. Treatment responses vary according to host factors such as age and gender, fibrotic severity and to viral factors like genotype and viral load. Patients with genotype 1 HCV and a high viral load require 12 months of treatment to achieve a SVR in approximately 30%, compared to those with genotypes 2 or 3 who achieve a SVR in approximately 65% after 6 months. Patients who relapse after an end-of-treatment response to interferon monotherapy have a good chance of responding to combination interferon and ribavirin given for 6 months, but a longer treatment course should be considered in less optimal cases. At present, the treatment of those with non-response is less clear, but there is interest in more intense forms of interferon therapy, such as induction dosing or pegylated interferon in combination with ribavirin. Clinicians need to be aware of the common side-effects of interferon and ribavirin so that appropriate counseling and testing can be instituted before and during therapy. The combination of pegylated interferon and ribavirin will be the new standard of therapy for hepatitis C and pegylated interferon monotherapy provides quite acceptable efficacy for those patients intolerant of ribavirin. Current data strongly support the concept that SVR in HCV infection (or treatment-induced latency) provides a cure in terms of its beneficial effects on quality of life and sustained amelioration of liver injury.
© 2002 Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd