The number of Veterans Affairs patients with hepatitis C who have achieved a sustained virologic response to antiviral therapy has escalated so rapidly and reached such a height that the disease may well be eradicated in that health care system within a few years, according to a report in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics.

The potential public health benefits are substantial, “considering that HCV infection is the most common cause of cirrhosis and liver cancer in the VA and the United States, that the benefits of SVR are long-lasting, and that HCV clearance reduces the risk of liver cancer by 76% and all-cause mortality by 50%,” said Andrew M. Moon, MD, of the division of general internal medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, and his associates.

An estimated 124,662 VA patients currently are infected, and curing them “would substantially reduce the burden of HCV within the entire country and prevent tens of thousands of deaths,” they noted.

The VA dramatically increased the number of patients who were offered treatment in recent years, because it was able to allocate nearly $700 million to offset the high costs of highly effective direct antiviral agents, which in turn made these better-tolerated drugs more widely available at clinics across the country. The VA also removed all treatment prioritization criteria, allowing all patients, not just those with severe disease, to receive highly effective direct antiviral agents. This is “in stark contrast to most health care systems, state Medicaid programs, and insurance carriers in the U.S., which still restrict access … based on severity of liver disease,” the investigators said (Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2017 March 8. doi: 10.1111/apt.14021 ).

To examine the impact of these changes, Dr. Moon and his associates performed a retrospective cohort study, analyzing the electronic medical records of all 105,369 HCV treatment regimens given to 78,947 VA patients (mean age, 56 years) during a 17-year period. They found that annual treatment rates more than doubled from 2,726 to 6,679 patients when pegylated interferon was introduced, declined for a while and then rose modestly to 4,900 patients when boceprevir and telaprevir were introduced, declined again to an all-time low of 2,609 and then rebounded to 9,180 patients when sofosbuvir and simeprevir were introduced, and finally skyrocketed to 31,028 patients when ledipasvir/sofosbuvir and paritaprevir/ritonavir/ombitasvir/dasabuvir were introduced.

Correspondingly, SVR rates rose from less than 25% at the beginning of the study period to a “remarkable” 90.5% at the end. The improvement in SVR rates was even more pronounced among traditionally “hard to treat” cases, such as patients with concomitant cirrhosis (from 11.0% to 87.0%), decompensated cirrhosis (from 14.6% to 85.2%), highly refractory infection (from 16.4% to 89.3%), and genotype-1 infection (from 1.3% to 91.7%). “The number of patients achieving SVR increased 21-fold from 1,313 in 2010 to an estimated 28,084 in 2015,” Dr. Moon and his associates said.

“We believe that our findings based on the VA health care system might be relevant and informative for other comprehensive health care systems,” providing proof-of-concept that similar results can be achieved if aggressive screening; affordable, tolerable treatment; and open access to all patients are implemented.