Treatment of hepatitis C virus infection in intravenous drug users


James Douglas Maxwell, St George’s, University of London, London SW17 0RE, UK.


Background:  Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection is common among intravenous drug users, and because of the long latent period, HCV liver disease is set to increase.

Objectives:  We sought to examine practice guidelines regarding treatment of HCV in drug users and to review the evidence for current practices.

Methods:  A structured search of the Pubmed database, websites of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and national and international expert groups and opinion of independent experts in the field.

Results and Conclusions:  All those infected with HCV need to be assessed to ascertain whether they have active ongoing viral replication and the extent of liver damage. HCV-infected individuals should be educated about the modes of transmission and means of reducing the risk of infecting others. They should also be advised to avoid cofactors (especially alcohol) that accelerate the progression of liver disease. Specific treatment with antivirals can cause viral clearance and prevent the progression of liver disease. Therapy is effective in those on opiate-replacement treatments and also in motivated individuals who continue to use intravenous drugs. The decision whether to treat drug users should be made jointly by specialists in the management of viral hepatitis and addiction on a case-by-case basis. Current combination drug regimens are expensive but are claimed to be cost-effective, and are certainly much less costly than managing end-stage liver disease. In addition to satisfactory sustained viral response rates, other benefits such as a beneficial effect on drug habit, self-esteem and rehabilitation have been reported. Encouraging suitable drug users to take-up and comply with treatment seems to be more easily achieved in supportive drug dependency unit settings (rather than the more formal surroundings of a hospital clinic).