There are 185 million people in the world chronically infected with hepatitis C virus, which attacks the liver and can cause liver cancer and cirrhosis. Around 350,000 people die as a result every year. Hepatitis C is blood-borne, may show no symptoms for years and, until recently, its treatment has been far from ideal. Even if you can get interferon and ribavirin, which are not available everywhere, the combination does not work in everybody. Those who are infected have felt stigmatised and neglected.
The recent breakthrough in treatment is, therefore, really good news. Drugs called direct-acting antivirals are going through the approvals process after excellent trials results. The leader of the pack is Gilead's sofosbuvir, licensed in Europe in November and the following month in the US. Janssen and Bristol Myers-Squibb are hard on their heels.
The cure rate seems close to 90%, which is incredibly good news for people infected with hepatitis C. But with most of the sufferers in middle-income countries and prices being set at very high levels for these new drugs, those who watched the delay in getting HIV treatment to poor countries think it is time to start agitating for access to these medicines in countries that will not find them easily affordable.
Médecins du Monde, in a new report, says we must learn the lessons from HIV. "New Treatments for Hepatitis C virus: Strategies for Achieving Universal Access" looks at the need and what companies like Gilead say they will do about it. The authors are not, as yet, impressed.
It is time to give access to medecines that can cure hepatitis C medicines in countries that will not find them easily affordable.
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