It wasn’t that long ago when treating hepatitis C was limited to two drugs: pegylated interferon and ribavirin. These medications were very challenging. People had to take them for a year, inject one of them, suffer severe side effects, and worst of all, they were not very effective at curing people. They also weren’t very good for people living with HIV.
Today, HCV treatment is easier than ever. For most people it can be completed in 12 weeks (some people may need 24 weeks), with few pills (and no injections!), and manageable side effects that are usually quite mild.
Best of all, they cure people at very high rates—90 to 100% of the time. They work very well in people living with HIV. HIV infection might complicate treatment, but it’s nothing that can’t be managed and you can still be cured of HCV.
The following are some key points for people living with HIV and HCV. This information comes from the two leading professional guidelines for managing and treating HIV and HCV, respectively. They guide your medical providers in their practice, and offer valuable information to you, too.
Managing HIV in co-infected persons
Managing and treating your HIV makes sense for your immune system and keeping your HIV viral load undetectable, but it’s good for your HCV, too. HIV treatment slows down liver damage and reduces the risk of liver-related problems for people who are co-infected.
There could be drug interactions between your HIV and HCV medications. In these cases, there may be a need to switch your HIV regimen to accommodate the HCV treatment. If you can’t (or don’t want) to switch, you may be able to try an HCV treatment that doesn’t interact with your HIV medication. Make sure your treatment providers for both your HIV and HCV are aware of all the medications you’re taking so that they can help you manage any potential interactions.
The most important thing is that you should not stop taking your HIV treatment so that you can treat your HCV. You can take treatment for both at the same time.
What to take
Everyone with HCV should be treated for it regardless how much liver damage the person has, and people with HIV/HCV co-infection are no exception.
The AASLD/IDSA Guidance states that people who are co-infected can be treated and re-treated with the same hepatitis C direct acting antivirals (DAAs) as those who are not. There may be some drug interactions between HIV and HCV meds, so make sure all your medical providers know what you’re taking. See the POSITIVELY AWARE Annual HCV Drug Guide (July+August 2016).
When to begin HCV treatment for co-infected persons
As soon as possible. Co-infected persons who are cured of HCV have lower risk of liver problems down the line. The sooner you get cured, the less likely the liver damage. Even if you find out that your liver has more advanced damage, getting cured reduces the risk of long-term problems. Depending upon how much damage there is, you might even be able to reverse it.
The only time you might consider holding off on HCV treatment is if your CD4 cells are below 200. It might make sense to wait a bit for the HIV meds to suppress the virus and give your immune system a chance to recover. Talk with your medical provider about the best course of action here.
Maximizing treatment effectiveness
Adherence to your HIV medications is extremely important for keeping your viral load suppressed and minimizing the risk of developing drug resistance.
The same is true of your HCV medications: The better you are at taking your HCV medications, the better your chance at being cured.
Adherence is more than just taking the pills every day. It includes taking them as prescribed to avoid drug interactions that might weaken the DAA’s effectiveness. Check with your medical provider about everything you’re taking—prescribed and over-the-counter—to make sure you can take them safely and to maximize your chance at a cure.
Preventing re-infection after treatment
You can get hepatitis C more than once. After you’ve been cured, it will still be important to prevent re-infection with HCV. If you inject drugs, use new syringes and injecting equipment and avoid sharing them. HIV-positive people are more vulnerable to sexual transmission of HCV, so minimizing your risk of exposure to HCV through safer sex practices (condoms for anal sex, gloves for fisting and so on) can offer you protection from re-infection.
After you’ve been cured, and if you have ongoing risk that could lead to re-infection, you won’t be able to use the standard HCV test, which looks for antibodies—you’ll always have HCV antibodies. You’ll need to get tested for HCV by taking a viral load test that checks for the actual virus itself.
We can end this
We can end co-infection. Through improved HCV awareness, routine HCV testing, and expanding HCV treatment, the health and well-being of people living with HIV will improve. It’s not easy, but we have the tools and the ability.
If you have any questions about HCV treatment, call The Support Partnership’s national hepatitis C helpline: HELP-4-HEP, (877) 435-7443.
See the recommendations from the AASLD/IDSA HCV Guidance: Recommendations for Testing, Managing and Treating Hepatitis C (hcvguidelines.org) and the Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents, aidsinfo.nih.gov/guidelines/html/1/adult-and-adolescent-treatment-guidelines/0.