Nobel Prize for Medicine brings hepatitis C into the limelight


For their work in discovering the hepatitis C virus, (from left) virologists Drs Rice, Alter and Houghton win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine this year. — AFP

A trio of researchers – American virologists Dr Harvey Alter and Dr Charles Rice, and British virologist Dr Michael Houghton – were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct 5 (2020) for their discovery of the hepatitis C virus.

Their work allowed the rapid development of antiviral drugs and blood tests.

Thanks to their efforts, the disease is now largely curable.

However, there are still more than 70 million people living with the virus, the vast majority of whom are not diagnosed.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), hepatitis C kills around 400,000 people a year, although that is likely to be an underestimation as many patients die from liver failure before they are diagnosed.

In all, hepatitis viruses kill more than a million people every year, putting it on a par with other global health threats such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and tuberculosis.

Cases are especially high in the Eastern Mediterranean region and Europe, according to the WHO.

The most common modes of infection are needle-sharing, blood transfusions, unsafe healthcare or unprotected sex.

There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.

Unlike hepatitis A, which is spread via polluted food or water, hepatitis C is a blood-borne pathogen that causes liver diseases such as cancer and cirrhosis.

Patients can often be infected for years, sometimes decades, without showing symptoms, making hepatitis C difficult to diagnose until the infection gets serious.

Its effects can range from illness lasting a few weeks to lifelong medical conditions.

Around 80% of people exposed to the virus develop chronic conditions, particularly cirrhosis, i.e. scarring of the liver, which can lead to organ failure.

For years, treatment for hepatitis C was only moderately effective – curing roughly half of patients – and came with a string of undesirable side effects.

But a new generation of drugs known as direct-acting antivirals (DAAs) have seen success rates soar, with around 95% of treated patients being cured.

However, new treatment regimens remain prohibitively expensive in many regions.

In 2017, the WHO estimated that just 19% of those infected globally received a diagnosis. Fewer than 10% received DAAs.

The Nobel committee said while announcing the winners, that the world could, for the first time, eradicate hepatitis C.

“To achieve this goal, international efforts facilitating blood testing and making antiviral drugs available across the globe will be required,” it said.

The committee said that the work of Drs Alter, Rice and Houghton had saved “millions of lives”. – AFP Relaxnews

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