The research article, due to appear in the 15 November issue of the journal, has been published early because of its potential clinical implications.
In the paper, it was determined whether treatment during the acute phase of hepatitis C could prevent the development of chronic infection.
Between 1998 and 2001, 44 patients (mean age 36 years, 25 women) throughout Germany who had acute hepatitis C were identified.
Patients received 5 million U of interferon alfa-2b subcutaneously daily, for 4 weeks and then three times per week, for another 20 weeks.
|98% of patients had no HCV RNA after interferon alfa-2b therapy.
| New England Journal of Medicine |
Serum HCV RNA levels were measured before and during therapy, and 24 weeks after the end of therapy.
Of the 44 patients, 9 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 researchers found that the average time from infection to the first signs or symptoms of hepatitis was 54 days. The average time from infection until the start of therapy was 89 days.
At the end of both therapy and follow-up, 42 of the 43 patients who completed follow-up (98%) had undetectable levels of HCV RNA in serum. They also had 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 1 patient, who stopped therapy after 12 weeks because of side-effects.
Dr Elmar Jaeckel and colleagues concluded from the study that the treatment of acute hepatitis C with interferon alfa-2b prevents chronic infection.