Most patients who receive direct-acting antiviral treatment for hepatitis C are cured. The need for and nature of ongoing clinical care after treatment depends on whether cure has been achieved, the presence of cirrhosis or persistently abnormal liver function test results and ongoing risk of reinfection with hepatitis C virus.
- Over 95% of patients are cured after a full course of DAA treatment.
- Patients with persistent liver function test abnormalities after DAA treatment need specialist referral for further investigation.
- Patients with cirrhosis need specialist referral and lifelong monitoring for complications such as hepatocellular carcinoma.
- Past infection does not result in immunity to hepatitis C, so patients should be counselled about the risk of reinfection and importance of harm reduction.
- Harm reduction is an effective approach to reduce hepatitis C risk, including access to clean needles, syringes and other injecting equipment, and opioid substitution therapy.
- Patients at risk of reinfection should be offered at least annual hepatitis C virus RNA PCR testing in the knowledge that they are eligible for retreatment if reinfected.
In Australia, over 70,000 people living with hepatitis C have received direct-acting antiviral (DAA) treatment, and GPs are writing an increasing proportion of all DAA prescriptions.1,2 Primary care is crucial to management of people after they have received DAA treatment for hepatitis C.
This is the fourth article in a series about treatment of patients with hepatitis C in general practice. Previous articles outlined how to identify patients with hepatitis C, their assessment and treatment with DAAs.3-5 This article focuses on general practice care of patients after DAA treatment. This includes recommended care of those who have been cured of hepatitis C, the small proportion who are not cured, those with cirrhosis and those with ongoing risk factors for reinfection.
Determining treatment outcome
Over 95% of patients with chronic hepatitis C are cured after a full course of DAA treatment. Hepatitis C virus (HCV) RNA testing is required to determine treatment success or failure (or subsequent reinfection).
A patient is defined as cured of hepatitis C if HCV RNA is no longer detected by a PCR test on a blood sample taken at least 12 weeks after completing the DAA treatment course.6 Cure is also referred to as a sustained virological response at 12 weeks (SVR12).
Advice for patients who are cured
After successful treatment, it is important to inform patients of the following:
- Antibodies against HCV will most likely remain detectable long term. These antibodies represent the body’s immune response to the virus and reflect exposure, not active infection.
- Past infection does not result in immunity and the presence of HCV antibodies does not prevent reinfection. People who continue to engage in behaviours that put them at risk can be reinfected with HCV.
People who inject drugs should be reminded that practising harm reduction will help minimise the risk of reinfection (see below). Men who have sex with men should be reminded about safe sexual practices to minimise the risk of reinfection. It is also worth mentioning that HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis with tenofovir – emtricitabine does not protect against HCV infection.
For people who continue to be at risk of HCV reinfection, HCV RNA testing by PCR should be offered at least annually (note that the MBS funds one HCV RNA PCR test per 12-month period).7 This is also an opportunity to discuss harm reduction measures. There is no indication for repeat hepatitis C antibody testing, as the result will most likely continue to be positive. It is important to let people know that they can be retreated if they are reinfected.
Clinical follow up
The recommended follow up for patients after hepatitis C DAA treatment is shown in the Flowchart.8 The need for ongoing clinical follow up is determined by several factors:6
- whether hepatitis C has been cured
- the degree of liver fibrosis present before DAA treatment
- liver function test results 12 weeks after treatment is completed
- ongoing exposure to risk factors.
Follow up of a patient who is cured is described in Box 1.
Patients who are cured
Patients without cirrhosis and with normal liver function
Most people currently living with hepatitis C in Australia do not have cirrhosis.9 No further clinical follow up of hepatitis C is needed for those without cirrhosis who:
- achieve a cure
- have normal liver function test results after treatment, and
- are not at risk of reinfection.