EASL Clinical Practice Guidelines (CPGs) assist physicians and other healthcare providers as well as patients and those interested in the clinical decision-making process by describing a range of generally accepted approaches for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of specific liver diseases.
Diagnosis of HCV infection is based on detection of anti-HCV antibodies by enzyme immunoassay and detection of HCV RNA by a sensitive molecular method (lower limit of detection <50 IU/ml), ideally a real-time PCR assay.
The diagnosis of chronic hepatitis C is based on the detection of HCV infection (positive anti-HCV antibodies and HCV RNA) in a patient with signs of chronic hepatitis. Rarely, in profoundly immunosuppressed patients, anti-HCV antibodies are not detected and HCV RNA is present alone.
There are currently no vaccines available for the prevention of HCV infection . Thus, HCV transmission can only be avoided by education and strict adherence to hygienic standards. The risk for HCV transmission is usually related to the level of HCV viral load. Genetic factors may also contribute to the susceptibility for HCV infection.
Seroconversion to anti-HCV occurs in less than 1% of occupational exposures to HCV . In addition, medical treatment still represents a risk factor for HCV transmission even in Western countries [, ]. Acute HBV and HAV superinfection may take a more severe course in patients with chronic hepatitis C although conflicting data have been published [, , , , ]. The risk for sexual transmission of HCV is very low although recent data indicate that promiscuous male homosexual activity is related to HCV infection . The vertical transmission rate of HCV is low (1–6%). Transmission might be higher for girls than for boys and in HIV-positive mothers  with high HCV viral load.
The goal of therapy is to eradicate HCV infection in order to prevent the complications of HCV-related liver disease, including necroinflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis, HCC, and death.
The endpoint of therapy is SVR, intermediate endpoints are used during SoC treatment to assess the likelihood of an SVR and tailor treatment duration. They include HCV RNA level measurements at 4, 12, and 24 weeks of therapy, which are interpreted in comparison to the baseline HCV RNA level. When HCV is eradicated, necroinflammation ceases and fibrosis progression is halted in non-cirrhotic patients.
In the pivotal clinical trials for registration of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy, SVR was achieved in 46% and 42% of patients infected with HCV genotype 1 treated with pegylated IFN-α2a or pegylated IFN-α2b and ribavirin, respectively [, , ]. SVR rates in these patients were slightly higher in Europe than in the US. These results were confirmed in the IDEAL trial that compared two approved treatment regimens in the United States: 41% with pegylated IFN-α2a, 180 μg/week plus weight-based ribavirin, 1.0–1.2 g/day, vs. 40% with pegylated IFN-α2b, 1.5 μg/kg/week plus weight-based ribavirin, 0.8–1.4 g/day for 48 weeks (NS) . In patients infected with HCV genotypes 2 and 3, SVR was achieved in the pivotal trials in 76% and 82% of cases with pegylated IFN-α2a plus ribavirin and pegylated IFN-α2b plus ribavirin, respectively. A recent meta-analysis showed higher SVR rates in genotype 2 than in genotype 3 infected patients treated for 24 weeks (74% vs. 69%, respectively) . Some “real-life” studies have recently reported somewhat lower SVR rates, in particular for genotype 3 infection .
The strongest predictors of SVR are the recently identified genetic polymorphisms located in chromosome 19, close to the region coding for IL28B (or IFN λ3), the HCV genotype, and the stage of fibrosis. Other predictors of response include baseline HCV RNA levels, the dose and duration of therapy, host factors, such as body mass index, age, insulin resistance, gender, and the characteristics of liver disease, including levels of ALT, GGT, the stage of fibrosis or co-infection with another hepatotropic virus or with HIV .
Summary of evidence
Relapsers are defined as patients who achieved an end-of-treatment response (undetectable HCV RNA at the end of treatment) but subsequently relapsed and did not achieve an SVR. The relapse rate after treatment with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin is on the order of 15–25%, but varies according to when HCV RNA becomes undetectable during therapy.
Patients relapsing after treatment with standard IFN-based regimens respond to re-treatment with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin in 32–53% of cases .
Non-responders are patients who failed to achieve a decline of 2 log HCV RNA IU/ml after 12 weeks of treatment or who never achieved undetectable HCV RNA during treatment of a minimum duration of 24 weeks. In the most recent trials, re-treatment of patients infected with HCV genotype 1 who failed previous pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy ranged from 4% to 14% [, ].
The causal relationship between HCV infection and liver disease must be established, liver disease severity must be assessed, and baseline virological and host parameters that will be useful to tailor therapy should be determined.
The assessment of liver disease should include biochemical markers, such as alanine aminotransferase (ALT) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT), alkaline phosphatase, bilirubin, prothrombin time or INR; albumin; gammaglobulins; full blood counts. Abdominal ultrasound must also be performed.
HCV RNA must be detectable to confirm the causal role of HCV. When planning treatment, HCV RNA must be quantified at baseline to be subsequently used as a reference in order to tailor treatment duration according to the HCV RNA kinetics. The use of real-time PCR quantification assays is strongly recommended for HCV RNA detection and quantification because of their sensitivity, specificity, accuracy, and broad dynamic range. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined an international standard for normalization of expression of HCV RNA concentrations. Serum HCV RNA levels should be expressed in IU/ml to ensure comparability. Standardized commercial assays are preferred to non-standardized “in house” technologies, and the same assay should be used in each patient to ensure consistency when evaluating antiviral response.
Other causes of chronic liver diseases should be systematically investigated, including co-infection with HIV and/or other hepatotropic viruses. Co-morbidities, including alcoholic, autoimmune, or metabolic liver disease with steatosis or steatohepatitis should be assessed. It is helpful to exclude pre-existing thyroid disease and thyroid peroxidase antibodies.
Assessment of liver disease severity is recommended prior to therapy. Identifying patients with cirrhosis is of particular importance, as their likelihood of responding to therapy and post-treatment prognosis are altered, and surveillance for HCC is required. Assessment of the stage of fibrosis by biopsy is not required in patients with clinical evidence of cirrhosis. Since significant fibrosis may be present in patients with repeatedly normal ALT, evaluation of disease severity should be performed regardless of ALT patterns. Endoscopy to rule out esophageal varices and portal hypertension should be performed in patients with known cirrhosis.
Liver biopsy remains the reference method. The risk of severe complications is very low (1/4000–10,000), but biopsy remains an invasive procedure. Histological features (necroinflammation = grading; fibrosis = staging) should be reported using a structured, semi-quantitative method. Various scoring systems have been validated for use in chronic hepatitis C. The most widely used in Europe are METAVIR, Scheuer, Ishak, and Knodell's HAI . Metavir and Scheuer's scores are more reproducible and less prone to observer variation, but less discriminant both for fibrosis and for necroinflammation than Ishak and Knodell .
Based on the abundant literature in chronic hepatitis C, alternative, non-invasive methods can now be used instead of liver biopsy in patients with chronic hepatitis C to assess liver disease severity prior to therapy at a safe level of predictability.
Transient elastography (TE):
Commercial or brand names for these tests are: TE: Fibroscan® can be used to assess liver fibrosis in patients with chronic hepatitis C, provided that consideration is given to factors that may adversely affect its performance such as obesity, age, and biochemical necroinflammatory activity. TE results should be evaluated relative to interquartile range and to the success rate of measurements. TE performs better at detecting cirrhosis than lesser degrees of fibrosis [, ].
The well established panels of biomarkers of fibrosis can be broadly categorized as those that include commonly performed biochemical and hematological tests, such as ALT, AST, prothrombin time, platelets (APRI, AST/ALT ratio, Forns Index); those that include specific indirect markers of liver fibrosis, such as α-2 macroglobulin
Tests including indirect markers of fibrosis: Fibrotest™ those that incorporate only direct markers of liver fibrosis
Tests including direct markers of fibrosis: Enhanced Liver Fibrosis Test ELF™; MP3™, Fibrospect II™ [, ], or combinations of direct and indirect markers
Tests including combinations of indirect and direct markers of fibrosis: Hepascore™; Fibrometer™
Sufficient evidence exists to support the view that simple and combination algorithms perform well in the detection of significant fibrosis (METAVIR score F2-F4). Thus, their use in patients with chronic hepatitis C can be recommended for this purpose. They all perform less well in the detection of lesser degrees of fibrosis [, , , ]. The combination of blood tests or the combination of TE and a blood test improve accuracy and reduce the necessity of using liver biopsy to resolve uncertainty. However, they increase the cost .
The HCV genotype should be assessed prior to treatment initiation since it influences decisions on the dose of ribavirin and on duration of treatment. With the current SoC, only the genotype (1–6) should be determined. The reference method is direct sequence analysis of the non-structural 5B region. Overall, last generation commercial genotyping assays based on direct sequence analysis of the 5′ untranslated region or on reverse hybridization of both the 5′ untranslated and core regions are satisfactory to differentiate the HCV genotypes in clinical practice . A need for subtyping may arise in the future due to different genetic barriers in resistance to protease inhibitors of HCV subtypes 1a and 1b .
Host polymorphisms located upstream of the IL28B gene are associated with sustained virological response to treatment with pegylated interferon alpha in combination with ribavirin in patients infected with HCV genotype 1 [, , , ]. However, the individual predictive value is low. Determination of these polymorphisms may be useful to assess a patient's likelihood of response to treatment with pegylated interferon alpha and ribavirin, but should not be used to defer therapy in those less likely to respond but most in need of treatment, i.e. patients with significant fibrosis. IL28B polymorphisms are less useful in patients with HCV genotype 2 and 3 infections [, ].
Treatment of chronic hepatitis C with interferon containing regimens has an absolute contra-indication in patients without an option for liver transplantation in the following groups: uncontrolled depression, psychosis, or epilepsy; uncontrolled autoimmune diseases; (Child–Pugh B7 or more); pregnant women or couples unwilling to comply with adequate contraception; severe concurrent medical disease, such as poorly controlled hypertension, heart failure, poorly controlled diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Relative contraindications to treatment are abnormal hematological indices (hemoglobin <13 g/dl for men and <12 g/dl for women, neutrophil count <1500/mm3, platelet count <90,000/mm3); serum creatinine level >1.5 mg/dl; significant coronary heart disease; and untreated thyroid diseases. Although decompensated patients should usually not be treated, treatment of patients with advanced liver disease (Child B cirrhosis) whose parameters may lie below label recommendations may be feasible in experienced centers under careful monitoring.
All treatment-naïve patients with compensated chronic liver disease related to HCV who are willing to be treated and have no contra-indication to pegylated IFN-α or ribavirin should be considered for therapy, whatever their baseline ALT level. Treatment should be initiated in patients with advanced fibrosis (METAVIR score F3–F4), and strongly considered in patients with moderate fibrosis (F2). In the patients with mild liver disease, particularly with longstanding infection, a balance between the benefit and risk related to therapy must be struck, also taking into account the perspective of new drugs and life expectancy of the patient.
Patients infected with HCV genotype 1 who failed to eradicate HCV after prior therapy with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin should not be re-treated with the same drug regimen, as the SVR rates are low (on the order of 9–15% for all genotypes and 4–6% for genotype 1) [, ]. These patients should wait for the approval of new combination therapies, which have been shown to yield higher SVR rates, on the order of 30–60%, depending on the type of previous non-response and stage of liver disease .
Patients infected with HCV genotypes other than genotype 1 who failed in prior therapy with IFN-α with or without ribavirin can be re-treated with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin, given the absence of a possibility of new drugs active against non-genotype 1 HCV.
The first-line treatment of chronic hepatitis C is based on the use of any of the two pegylated IFN-α available, administered weekly, subcutaneously, and daily oral ribavirin (A1). Pegylated IFN-α2a should be used at a dose of 180 μg once per week, whereas pegylated IFN-α2b should be used at a weight-based dose of 1.5 μg/kg per week. The ribavirin dose depends on the HCV genotype. Patients infected with HCV genotypes 1 and 4–6 should receive a weight-based dose of ribavirin: 15 mg/kg body weight per day. Patients infected with genotypes 2 and 3 can be treated with a flat dose of 800 mg of ribavirin daily, but those with a BMI beyond 25 or who have baseline factors suggesting low responsiveness (insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, severe fibrosis or cirrhosis, older age) should receive a weight-based dose of ribavirin, similar to genotypes 1 and 4. Strict birth control should be applied in patients treated with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin during therapy and in the six months following. Treatment with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin has been deemed cost effective even for early stages of fibrosis [, , ].
Treatment monitoring includes monitoring of treatment efficacy and any side effects.
Monitoring of treatment efficacy is based on repeated measurements of HCV RNA levels. A sensitive, accurate assay with a broad dynamic range of quantification, ideally a real-time PCR based assay, should be used. The same assay, ideally from the same laboratory, should be used in each patient to measure HCV RNA at different time points, in order to assure consistency of results [, , ].
Abbreviated (24 week treatment) is indicated for patients with genotype 1 and a low vs. high baseline and undetectable HCV RNA after 4 weeks treatment. There is no current agreement on the most discriminatory HCV RNA level, which ranges between 400,000 and 800,000 IU/ml (5.6–5.9 log10 IU/ml) [, , , , , , ].
In order to monitor treatment efficacy and guide decisions on treatment duration, HCV RNA level measurements should be performed at baseline, weeks 4, 12, and 24, at the end of treatment, and 24 weeks after the end of therapy in order to assess the SVR. ALT levels should be measured at the same time points as HCV RNA levels. The biochemical response (ALT normalization) generally follows the virological response by a few weeks.
Flu-like symptoms are often present after pegylated IFN-α injections. They are easily controlled by paracetamol and tend to attenuate after 4–6 weeks of therapy.
At each visit, the patients should be assessed for clinical side effects, such as severe fatigue, depression, irritability, sleeping disorders, skin reactions, and dyspnea. Hematological and biochemical side effects of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin include neutropenia, anemia, thrombocytopenia, and ALT flares. These parameters should be assessed at weeks 1, 2, and 4 of therapy and at 4–8 week intervals thereafter. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and free thyroxine levels should be measured every 12 weeks while on therapy . Unusual or severe side effects include seizures, bacterial infections, autoimmune reactions, interstitial lung disease, a neuroretinitis, bone marrow aplasia or idiopathic thrombocytopenia. Patients should be advised of the risk of teratogenicity with RBV and the need for contraception for 6 months beyond treatment.
The pegylated IFN-α dose should be reduced in case of severe side effects, such as clinical symptoms of severe depression, and if the absolute neutrophil count falls below 750/mm3, or the platelet count falls below 50,000/mm3. In individual cases, clinicians may choose to maintain or reduce dosing in these situations but cautious monitoring is advised. When using pegylated IFN-α2a, the dose can be reduced from 180 to 135 μg/week and then to 90 μg/week. When using pegylated IFN-α2b, the dose can be reduced from 1.5 to 1.0 μg/kg/week and then to 0.5 μg/kg/week. Pegylated IFN-α should be stopped in case of marked depression, if the neutrophil count falls below 500/mm3 or the platelet count falls below 25,000/mm3. If neutrophil or platelet counts go up, treatment can be re-started, but at a reduced pegylated IFN-α dose. If significant anemia occurs (hemoglobin <10 g/dl), the dose of ribavirin should be adjusted downward by 200 mg at a time. Ribavirin administration should be stopped if the hemoglobin level falls below 8.5 g/dl. Alternatively, growth factors can be used to maintain high doses of pegylated IFN-α and/or ribavirin (see below) [, , , , , , , ].
Treatment should be promptly stopped in case of a hepatitis flare (ALT levels above 10 times normal, if not already present at the time of starting treatment) or if a severe bacterial infection occurs at any body site, regardless of neutrophil counts.
Pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin treatment duration can be tailored to the on-treatment virological response. Upon treatment, HCV RNA should be assessed at three time points, regardless of the HCV genotype: baseline, weeks 4 and 12. Week 24 testing may also be useful in selected patients. The likelihood of SVR is directly proportional to the time of HCV RNA disappearance (Fig. 1).
Treatment should be stopped at week 12 if the HCV RNA decrease is less than 2 log10 IU/ml, i.e. if the baseline HCV RNA level is reduced by less than 99% of the baseline value, as the SVR rate in these patients with standard treatment duration is less than 2%. In patients with detectable HCV RNA (⩾50 IU/ml) at week 24, treatment should also be stopped due to a minimal chance of SVR (1–3%) [, , , ].
Patients with a more than 2 log10 drop or an undetectable HCV RNA at week 12 can be classified into three groups according to their virological response (Table 2): (1) rapid virologic response (RVR) is defined as an undetectable HCV RNA level in a sensitive assay (lower limit of detection ⩽50 IU/ml) at week 4 of therapy (approximately 24–27% of genotype 1 and 64–76% of genotype 2- or 3-infected patients achieve an RVR); (2) early virological response (EVR) is defined as an HCV RNA which is detectable at week 4 but undetectable at week 12; (3) delayed virological response (DVR) is defined as a more than 2 log10 decline in HCV RNA concentration but a detectable HCV RNA level at week 12 and an undetectable HCV RNA level at week 24 (approximately 22–31% of genotype 1-infected patients have a DVR). Up to the end of any treatment, all types of virological responses (RVR, EVR, DVR) must be followed by assays ensuring that HCV RNA is undetectable. Reappearance of HCV RNA at any time during treatment after virological response is classified as a breakthrough (BT).
Monitoring of on-therapy response to PEG IFN plus ribavirin.
The following treatment durations should be applied according to the virological response, regardless of the HCV genotype:
Response-guided treatment profiles are outlined in Fig. 2 for genotype 1 and Fig. 3 for genotypes 2 and 3.
Simple measures should be taken in order to improve success rates, as they have been shown to be associated with significantly higher SVR rates.
Full adherence to both pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin is associated with improved SVR rates . It is recommended that any dose reductions are reviewed and a full dose reinstated as soon as possible to attain and sustain maximum exposure to each drug . Factors influencing adherence have been reviewed and addressed in individual studies. These have demonstrated that homelessness, active injection drug use, or ongoing opiate substitution therapy can each be addressed to result in SVR rates equivalent to those seen in registration trials [, , ].
Before starting antiviral therapy, patients must be instructed about the schedule and the side effects to be expected during treatment. Patients should also be instructed about the preventive and therapeutic measures to ameliorate these side effects, for e.g. by using antipyretics, analgetics, or antidepressants (see below). Regular follow-up visits must be scheduled so that treatment progress and management issues regarding side effects can be discussed. Easy access to physicians or specialized nursing staff in case of side effects should be facilitated in order to reduce discontinuation rates to a minimum. Patient recall procedures in cases of missed appointments should be instituted.
Body weight. Body weight (BMI) adversely influences the response to pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin, even after dose adjustment for IFN and ribavirin . Body weight reduction prior to therapy is recommended and has been associated with better SVR rates.
Alcohol consumption. Since regular alcohol consumption leads to accelerated fibrosis progression and possibly reduced response to antiviral therapy, it is important to assure that patients abstain from regular alcohol consumption. If patients cannot abstain from regular alcohol consumption, treatment for alcohol dependence should be attempted before the initiation of antiviral therapy, and additional support should be given to them during antiviral therapy so they adhere to a full course of therapy . Patients should be counseled to either completely abstain from alcohol consumption during antiviral therapy or, less preferably, to at least reduce alcohol consumption to occasional small amounts.
Insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is associated with fibrosis progression in chronic hepatitis C and an increased HOMA index has been shown to be an independent predictor of treatment failure in patients treated with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin . No prospective trials of relevant size have been published to date to prove the efficacy of a therapeutic intervention aimed at improving insulin resistance in SVR. Thus, it is premature to issue any recommendation as to the use of drugs that reduce insulin resistance and proper trials need to be performed.
Growth factors. The use of growth factors has been suggested to be helpful in limiting treatment dose reductions.
Recombinant erythropoietin can be used to maintain or improve hemoglobin levels in order to avoid ribavirin dose reductions or interruptions, which have been shown to be associated with higher treatment failure rates. Although no prospective trials have been designed to date to definitely demonstrate that the use of erythropoietin has a positive impact on SVR, it is broadly used worldwide to maintain high doses of ribavirin and improve patients' well being . Erythropoietin can be administered when the hemoglobin level falls below 10 g/dl. The hemoglobin level should be re-assessed 2 weeks after the initiation of erythropoietin therapy. At this time point, the erythropoietin dose should be reduced if the increase in hemoglobin is more than 1 g/dl and stopped if the hemoglobin level has risen to over 12 g/dl. The hemoglobin level should be re-assessed 4 weeks later. The dose should be reduced if the hemoglobin increase is more than 2 g/dl compared to 4 weeks earlier, and erythropoietin should be stopped if the hemoglobin level is higher than 12 g/dl. In this case, erythropoietin therapy can be re-started at 50% of the initial dose if the hemoglobin level falls again below 12 g/dl. If the hemoglobin level increase is less than 1 g/dl at 4 weeks of administration and no other cause of anemia is found, the erythropoietin dose can be increased.
There is no clear evidence indicating that neutropenia during pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy, a common event in cirrhotic patients, has an adverse effect. In addition, there is no evidence from prospective trials that the use of granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) reduces the rate of infections and/or improves SVR rates. Even though G-CSF is used in some countries in Europe  as soon as the neutrophil count drops below 750–500/mm3, there is insufficient evidence to recommend this practice as standard treatment.
A thrombopoetin receptor agonist has been shown to be able to increase platelet counts prior to therapy in thrombocytopenic patients with HCV-related cirrhosis . Discontinuation rates due to thrombocytopenia are rare and patients with low platelet counts can generally be initiated on pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy without an increase in major bleeding episodes. Until SVR can be shown to be improved by improving platelet counts, no recommendations can be made as to the use of thrombopoiesis-stimulating agents. The risk of portal vein thrombosis during treatment with eltrombag, a thrombopoetin receptor agonist-stimulating agent, needs to be considered .
Antidepressants. Depression has a severe adverse impact on health-related quality of life during pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy and was the most frequent reason for treatment discontinuations in the pivotal trials. Patients with a history and/or signs of depression should be seen by a psychiatrist before therapy initiation in order to assess the risk and evaluate potential contra-indications. They should be followed-up thereafter if needed. Antidepressant therapy should be initiated during therapy if felt appropriate, and appropriate follow-up is required to decide whether treatment interruption is needed. Preventive antidepressant therapy can be discussed as its efficacy in reducing the incidence of depression during treatment has been reported, without any impact on the SVR . Hypersensitivity with irritability and anxiety resulting from IFN-induced sleep deprivation should not be confounded with depression and should be adequately treated with anxiolytics rather than sleeping pills or antidepressants .
Non-cirrhotic patients who achieve an SVR should be retested for ALT and HCV RNA at 48 weeks post-treatment and one year later. If ALT is still normal and HCV RNA is still not detected, the patient can be discharged as cured. As hypothyroidism may occur after stopping therapy, TSH and thyroxine levels should also be assessed 1 year after treatment. In addition, cirrhotic patients must remain under surveillance for esophageal varices every 1–2 years and HCC every 6 months by means of ultrasonography and α-fetoprotein. HCV RNA need not be retested.
Non-sustained virological responders to a prior course of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin that have been infected with HCV genotype 1 have only a small likelihood of achieving an SVR; when re-treated with the same drugs at the same doses, the likelihood does not exceed 10–15% for non-responders and 30–40% for relapsers. Hence, these patients should have re-treatment deferred and be re-evaluated for treatment with direct acting antivirals (e.g. HCV protease inhibitors) in combination with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin as soon as these drugs become available.
The first generation protease inhibitors i.e. telaprevir and bocepreivr, are not efficacious and will not be licensed for use in non -1 genotypes. Non-genotype 1 non-responder patients can thus be re-treated with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin if they have an urgent indication for therapy, and/or if there is evidence of inadequate exposure to either pegylated IFN-α or ribavirin due to dose adjustments or poor adherence during the first course of therapy. Longer re-treatment durations (48 weeks for genotypes 2 and 3, 72 weeks for genotype 4 patients) might be advisable, especially in patients with DVR and relapse in the first cycle of treatment [, , , ]. With the current clinical development of a number of new drugs for the treatment of chronic HCV infection, it is recommended that, whenever possible, patients who failed to respond to a first course of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin should be included in clinical trials with these new drugs.
Maintenance therapy with a low dose of pegylated IFN-α is generally not recommended as it has shown no general efficacy in preventing chronic hepatitis C complications in the long-term . Recent data from an extended analysis of the HALT-C cohort suggest that long-term peginterferon therapy slightly reduces the incidence of HCC among patients with cirrhosis who received peginterferon, regardless of whether SVR was achieved . However, considering the marginal beneficial effect and the side effects and costs of peginterferon, the utility of peginterferon maintenance therapy is doubtful.
Patients with compensated cirrhosis must be treated in the absence of contra-indications, in order to prevent the complications of chronic HCV infection that occur exclusively in this group in the short- to mid-term. Indeed, large cohort studies and meta-analyses have shown that an SVR in patients with advanced fibrosis is associated with a significant decreased incidence of clinical decompensation and HCC. However, the SVR rates with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin are lower in patients with advanced fibrosis or cirrhosis than in patients with mild to moderate fibrosis. Thus, it may also be justified to wait for the approval of triple therapies with protease inhibitors (genotype 1) if their local availability is anticipated within a few months.
Assiduous monitoring and management of side-effects is required in this group of patients, who are generally older and have a lower tolerance than patients with less advanced liver disease. Due to portal hypertension and hypersplenism, leukocyte and platelet counts at baseline may be low in cirrhotic patients. Hematological side effects are more frequent in cirrhotic than in non-cirrhotic patients , and may contraindicate therapy. Growth factors might be useful in this group.
Irrespective of the achievement of an SVR, patients with cirrhosis should undergo regular surveillance for the occurrence of HCC and for portal hypertension, as the risk of complications is decreased but not abolished when HCV infection has been eradicated.
Liver transplantation is the treatment of choice for patients with end-stage liver disease. However, hepatitis C recurrence due to graft infection is universal after transplantation . Antiviral therapy in patients awaiting transplantation prevents graft infection if an SVR is achieved [, , ]. More than half of the patients have contraindications for the use of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin, and the results of therapy are generally poor in this group of individuals with advanced or decompensated liver disease. Antiviral therapy is indicated in patients with conserved liver function (Child–Pugh A) in whom the indication for transplantation is HCC. In patients with Child–Pugh B cirrhosis, antiviral therapy may be offered on an individual basis in experienced centers, preferentially in patients with predictors of good response, such as patients infected with HCV genotypes 2 or 3, or patients with a low baseline HCV RNA level. Patients with Child–Pugh C cirrhosis should not be treated with the SoC, due to a high risk of life-threatening complications [, , , ].
For those individuals with severe liver disease that can be treated before transplantation, antiviral therapy should be started at the time of enlistment, with the goal of achieving an SVR , or while awaiting transplantation in order to achieve HCV-RNA clearance at the time of transplantation [, , ]. Approximately 75% of patients rendered HCV RNA negative at the time of transplantation remain negative post-transplantation. Treatment can be started at low doses of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin, following a low accelerated dose regimen, or if possible, at full doses. In the latter case, dose reductions and treatment interruptions are required in more than 50% of cases. Hematological adverse events (anemia, neutropenia, and thrombocytopenia) are particularly frequent in patients with end-stage liver disease because of portal hypertension. Treatment, therefore, requires close monitoring and dose modifications. The use of growth factors (erythropoietin and G-CSF) might be helpful to control hematological side effects.
HCV infection recurrence is universal in patients with detectable HCV RNA at the time of liver transplantation . The course of HCV-related liver disease is accelerated in liver transplant recipients and approximately one third of them develop cirrhosis within 5 years following transplantation [, ]. Successful therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on both graft and patient survival .
Patients with post-transplant recurrence of HCV infection should initiate therapy once chronic hepatitis is established and histologically proven; these patients generally have a better background for therapy than at the acute stage of re-infection and related hepatitis, i.e. lowered immunosuppression, an improved clinical status ensuring better tolerability, and a lower risk of triggering graft rejection upon IFN-based therapy. The presence of significant fibrosis or portal hypertension one year after transplantation is predictive of rapid disease progression and graft loss, and urgently indicates antiviral treatment [, ]. In patients with less advanced disease, such as those with fibrosis restricted to the portal tract and no portal hypertension, indications for therapy must be weighed against the likelihood of a sustained viral eradication and the risk of complications due to the use of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin. Nevertheless, these patients have a better chance of an SVR than those with more advanced disease.
The likelihood of an SVR in the post-transplant setting is on the order of 30% overall, with better response rates in patients infected with HCV genotypes 2 or 3 than genotype 1 [, , ]. As renal insufficiency is common in liver transplant recipients, ribavirin doses need to be adjusted accordingly. The relatively low efficacy of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy in HCV-infected transplant recipients is at least partly due to the high incidence of side effects that result in frequent dose adjustments and treatment interruptions. Anemia is the most common cause of treatment interruption in this setting (10–40% of the patients) [, ]. Therefore, the use of erythropoietin can be recommended in this setting. Graft rejection is rare but may occur during IFN-α treatment. A liver biopsy should be performed whenever liver tests worsen during the course of antiviral therapy to diagnose it and guide treatment decision. There is no evidence for the benefit of low-dose pegylated IFN-α maintenance therapy in patients who do not achieve an SVR.
Progression of liver disease is accelerated in patients with HIV-HCV co-infection, in particular those with a low CD4-positive cell count and impaired immune function. For this reason, early antiretroviral therapy should be considered in patients with HIV-HCV co-infection . If the patient has severe immunodeficiency, with a CD4-positive cell count <200 cells/μl, the CD4 count should be improved using highly active antiretroviral therapy prior to commencing anti-HCV treatment. During pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin treatment, didanosine is contraindicated. Stavudine and zidovudine should be avoided, while the role of abacavir remains debated. The severity of liver disease must be assessed prior to therapy by means of a liver biopsy or by non-invasive assessment (serological tests or transient elastography) .
Indications for HCV treatment are identical to those in patients with HCV monoinfection . The same pegylated IFN-α regimen should be used in HIV-co-infected patients as in patients without HIV infection. Weight-based doses of ribavirin (15 mg/kg/day) should be used, whatever the HCV genotype . Monitoring of viral kinetics on treatment should be performed and the patients should be treated according to their virological response at weeks 4 and 12. Rates of SVR are generally lower than in monoinfected patients, proportionally to HCV genotype . Patients infected with genotypes 2 or 3 with low baseline HCV RNA level (<400,000 IU/ml) and mild fibrosis who achieve an RVR may only need 24 weeks of therapy. Other patients need 48 weeks of therapy, and treatment should be extended to 72 weeks in patients who are still HCV RNA-positive at week 12 (DVR), whatever the HCV genotype.
In patients with HCV-HBV co-infection, the HBV DNA level is often low or undetectable, although it may fluctuate widely, and HCV is usually the main driver of chronic hepatitis activity. The replicative status of both HBV and HCV should be determined, and hepatitis delta virus infection excluded. When HCV is replicating and causes liver disease, it should be treated with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin following the same rules as monoinfected patients. The SVR rates in this group are broadly comparable or even higher to those in HCV monoinfected patients [, ]. There is a potential risk of HBV reactivation during or after HCV clearance . In that case, or if HBV replication is detectable at a significant level, concurrent HBV nucleoside/nucleotide analogue therapy may be indicated. For telbivudine, potentially increased toxicity, related to neuropathy, when used in conjunction with IFN has been reported.
Hemodialysis patients. Due to the negative long-term impact of HCV infection after transplantation and to the current lack of treatment options for HCV after kidney transplantation, treatment of hemodialysis patients should be attempted when possible. Ribavirin is cleared by the kidneys. Therefore, hemodialysis patients have been treated with pegylated IFN-α monotherapy at the usual doses . In the absence of ribavirin, SVR rates are substantially lower than in non-dialysis patients. Rates between 30% and 50% of discontinuation of pegylated IFN-α monotherapy are reported. Careful patient selection and side effect management are important. Combination treatment with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin might be considered by experienced physicians, with individualized ribavirin dosing of 200 mg/day to 200 mg/every other day and substantial hematopoietic support, as suggested by few preliminary studies. Since PegIFN-alpha2a is cleared through the liver and PegIFN-alpha2b primarily through the kidneys, there could be a theoretical accumulation of PegIFN-alpha2b when used in hemodialysis patients, which could either cause more side effects or an increased efficacy [, ]. Even though this has not been formally compared, no obvious differences are observed clinically.
Non-hepatic solid organ transplant recipients. HCV infection in kidney transplant recipients is associated with an increased risk of fibrosis progression and liver-related mortality. As cirrhosis is an important predictor of poor post-transplant survival after kidney transplantation, it is advisable to obtain a liver biopsy from all HCV-positive kidney transplant candidates . Treatment of chronic HCV infection with pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin in kidney transplant recipients is associated with a risk of acute or chronic cellular rejection of 30% or more, resulting in graft loss and reduced patient survival. Therefore, pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy has additional risks in these patients, and indications for treatment must be tailored accordingly. Subjects with an indication for kidney transplantation should be treated for hepatitis C prior to transplantation .
Data on HCV infection after heart transplantation are scarce and controversial, with studies showing unaltered or decreased survival rates in patients infected with HCV. No studies on the risks and benefits of antiviral therapy are available in these patients and the risk of graft rejection upon IFN-α treatment remains unclear. In this context, treatment of chronic HCV infection in heart transplant recipients cannot be recommended and the indication should be assessed on a case-by-case basis, if HCV infection is life-threatening.
International guidelines list chronic HCV infection as an absolute contraindication to lung transplantation . Treatment of lung transplant candidates before transplantation has been recommended by some authors, but there is limited experience with this approach. No data are available on the impact of HCV infection and its treatment after pancreas or small bowel transplantation.
Alcohol abuse. Chronic alcohol consumption in patients with chronic hepatitis C is associated with an accelerated fibrosis progression, a higher frequency of cirrhosis, and a higher incidence of HCC . SVR rates are lower in patients abusing alcohol . Nevertheless, at least moderate alcohol consumption is found in two-thirds of patients with chronic hepatitis C and only half of them discontinue alcohol consumption upon counseling and treatment initiation. The impact on response to SoC is unclear. Patients with alcohol consumption should not be excluded from treatment but should receive counseling to stop their consumption and additional support to improve adherence during therapy.
Drug abuse. Little data are available on the treatment of active drug users, due to the widely accepted notion that patients should be drug-free or on stable substitution therapy for at least 6–12 months. No general recommendation for treatment of active drug users can be made. An individualized approach after evaluation and close monitoring by an experienced multidisciplinary team of hepatologists and addictologists is recommended .
Patients on stable maintenance substitution. Drug addicts on methadone substitution therapy do not seem to have lower SVR rates upon pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin therapy. However, discontinuation during the first 8 weeks of therapy appears to be slightly more frequent . In these patients, antiviral therapy should be instituted after careful individual evaluation by an interdisciplinary team of hepatologists and addictologists. Close monitoring and support for adherence and mental health are recommended.
Hemoglobinopathies. The most frequent hemoglobinopathy associated with chronic hepatitis C is thalassemia major, which requires frequent blood transfusions and is prevalent in countries where blood supply screening may be less stringent than in industrialized areas. In the few published clinical trials, these patients had a higher incidence of anemia and iron accumulation on standard combination of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin. Therefore, they can be treated with standard combination therapy, but these complications should be carefully managed with growth factors, blood transfusions, and iron chelation therapy when needed .
Chronic HCV infection is frequent in individuals with sickle cell anemia, as a consequence of the number of blood transfusions received. No trials with antiviral therapy have been published in this population. Individual cases have been successfully treated with the combination of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin.
Untreated patients with chronic hepatitis C and those who failed to respond to previous cycles of treatment should be regularly followed. Previous guidelines recommended performing a liver biopsy every 3–5 years. With non-invasive methods, more frequent screening can be performed. Thus, untreated patients should be assessed every 1–2 years with a non-invasive method. Patients with cirrhosis should undergo specific screening for HCC every 6 months.
Most patients with acute hepatitis C are asymptomatic, but a high rate of chronicity is expected (50–90%). Symptomatic disease, female gender, a young age, clearance of HCV RNA within four weeks after the onset of clinical symptoms, and genetic polymorphisms in the region upstream of the IL28B gene have been associated with spontaneous viral clearance, but none of these parameters accurately predicts spontaneous resolution at the individual level.
Early identification of acute hepatitis C is important, but may be difficult as the disease may be relatively silent. Patients with acute hepatitis C should be considered for antiviral therapy in order to prevent progression to chronic hepatitis C. High SVR rates (up to 90% or even higher) have been reported with pegylated IFN-α monotherapy, essentially in a series of symptomatic patients, regardless of the HCV genotype. Early treatment of these individuals is usually advisable, but no consensus exists: In those who do not appear to be convalescing 2–4 months after onset of the disease, antiviral treatment (see below) should be considered, as a high percentage of patients (>80–90%) may respond, and the risk of chronic disease is high. Combination therapy with ribavirin does not increase the SVR rate in this setting but may be considered in those patients where the differential diagnosis of acute vs. chronic hepatitis is uncertain [, , , , , , ]. The most important determinant of lack of response in non-adherence is in patients with acute hepatitis C.
It has also been suggested to follow these patients with HCV RNA quantification every 4 weeks and to treat only those still positive at 12 weeks after initial presentation . Some clinicians may prefer to start treatment earlier if the HCV RNA is high and not declining. The usual treatment of acute hepatitis C should be based on pegylated IFN-α monotherapy, i.e. either pegylated IFN-α2a, 180 μg/week, or pegylated IFN-α2b, 1.5 μg/kg/week, for 24 weeks. There is currently no indication for administering IFN-α as post-exposure prophylaxis in the absence of documented HCV transmission.
Important progress has been made in the development of new treatments, in particular new specific inhibitors or direct antiviral agents active against hepatitis C. A large number of trials investigating NS3 protease inhibitors, NS5A and NS5B polymerase inhibitors, cyclophilin inhibitors, new forms of interferon, derivatives of ribavirin, and therapeutic vaccines are in progress. Studies are mostly directed at patients infected by HCV genotype 1 .
Phase III clinical trials combining pegylated IFN-α, ribavirin, and a direct acting antiviral of the HCV protease inhibitor family (telaprevir or boceprevir) have been completed. These data will likely lead to the approval of a triple therapy in patients infected with HCV genotype 1 who are treatment-naïve or had non-response to a prior course of pegylated IFN-α and ribavirin. The pivotal trials with telaprevir and boceprevir have confirmed that a significantly higher proportion of naïve and non-responder patients with genotype 1 infection have an SVR, with response-guided therapy. In a proportion of patients with satisfactory early responses, treatment can be significantly shortened [, , , ]. Telaprevir is adminstered three times daily. Boceprevir is administered three times daily after a 4 week lead-in-phase of PEG-IFN-α plus ribavirin alone. In treatment-naïve patients SVR rates were 27–31% higher when receiving triple therapy. Response-guided treatment is utilized; 24 weeks of therapy is given for patients who become HCV RNA negative at weeks 4 and 12 (eRVR) (telaprevir) or HCV RNA negative from treatment week 8 through 24 (boceprevir), 48 weeks of treatment is required for non-eRVR patients. Shorter treatment is likely to be possible in 50–66% of patients. Previous relapse patients show very high SVR rates of 75%-86%, while response rates are lower for partial responder (>2 log decline in HCV RNA at 12 weeks of prior therapy) (50–60%) and previous null-responder patients (33%, data only for telaprevir) . Factors associated with response to triple therapy remain to be determined: advanced fibrosis and African-American ethnicity has been identified as an independent negative predictor of response.
The present guidelines will be updated when these combinations are approved. In patients infected with HCV genotypes other than 1, the current guidelines will still apply.
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