Background: Interferon alfa is the only effective treatment for patients with chronic hepatitis C. Forty percent of patients have an initial response to this therapy, but most subsequently relapse. We compared the effect of interferon alone with that of interferon plus oral ribavirin for relapses of chronic hepatitis C.
Methods: We studied 345 patients with chronic hepatitis C who relapsed after interferon treatment. A total of 173 patients were randomly assigned to receive standard-dose recombinant interferon alfa-2b concurrently with ribavirin (1000 to 1200 mg orally per day, depending on body weight) for six months, and 172 patients were assigned to receive interferon and placebo.
Results: At the completion of treatment, serum levels of hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA were undetectable in 141 of the 173 patients who were treated with interferon and ribavirin and in 80 of the 172 patients who were treated with interferon alone (82 percent vs. 47 percent, P<0.001). Serum HCV RNA levels remained undetectable 24 weeks after the end of treatment in 84 patients (49 percent) in the combination-therapy group, but in only 8 patients (5 percent) in the interferon group (P<0.001). Sustained normalization of serum alanine aminotransferase concentrations and histologic improvement were highly correlated with virologic response. Base-line serum HCV RNA levels of 2 x 10(6) copies per milliliter or less were associated with higher rates of response in both treatment groups. Viral genotypes other than type 1 were associated with sustained responses only in the combination-therapy group. Combined therapy caused a predictable fall in hemoglobin concentrations but otherwise had a safety profile similar to that of interferon alone.
Conclusions: In patients with chronic hepatitis C who relapse after treatment with interferon, therapy with interferon and oral ribavirin results in higher rates of sustained virologic, biochemical, and histologic response than treatment with interferon alone.