Background: In people who are infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) chronic infection often develops and is difficult to eradicate. We sought to determine whether treatment during the acute phase could prevent the development of chronic infection.
Methods: Between 1998 and 2001, we identified 44 patients throughout Germany who had acute hepatitis C. Patients received 5 million U of interferon alfa-2b subcutaneously daily for 4 weeks and then three times per week for another 20 weeks. Serum HCV RNA levels were measured before and during therapy and 24 weeks after the end of therapy.
Results: The mean age of the 44 patients was 36 years; 25 were women. Nine became infected with HCV through intravenous drug use, 14 through a needle-stick injury, 7 through medical procedures, and 10 through sexual contact; the mode of infection could not be determined in 4. The average time from infection to the first signs or symptoms of hepatitis was 54 days, and the average time from infection until the start of therapy was 89 days. At the end of both therapy and follow-up, 43 patients (98 percent) had undetectable levels of HCV RNA in serum and normal serum alanine aminotransferase levels. Levels of HCV RNA became undetectable after an average of 3.2 weeks of treatment. Therapy was well tolerated in all but one patient, who stopped therapy after 12 weeks because of side effects.
Conclusions: Treatment of acute hepatitis C with interferon alfa-2b prevents chronic infection.