WHO Releases Global Hepatitis C Treatment Guidelines, Urges Cure Pills Should be Made Affordable

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | April 10, 2014 2:09 PM EST

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday urged global governments as well as the world's numerous pharmaceuticals to lower down and make affordable the prices of cure pills for the hepatitis C virus (HCV) as the agency released its first ever global Hepatitis C treatment guidelines.

HCV is a chronic infection that affects an estimated 130 million to 150 million people worldwide. Around 350,000 to 500,000 people die annually from hepatitis C-related liver diseases, the WHO said.

The WHO guidelines listed recommendations such as screening for hepatitis C, medical care to slow the progress of the disease, as well as safe and effective treatments. Controlled alcohol intake is likewise advised.

"The new guidance aims to help countries to improve treatment and care for hepatitis and thereby reduce deaths from liver cancer and cirrhosis," Stefan Wiktor form WHO's global hepatitis program said in a statement.

However, for as long as prices of HCV cure pills remain exorbitant, the goal to curb the virus and its effects on the global populace will remain mediocre.

"A concerted effort is needed to reduce the price of HCV medicines," the WHO said. "National governments, international agencies, donors, civil-society organizations and the pharmaceutical industry will need to work together to assure that hepatitis C treatment is affordable and accessible for all those who need treatment."

Two new drugs were recently approved to combat the HCV. The latest one was sofosbuvir, approved in December 2013 in the US, and in January 2014 by the European approval authorities. Manufactured by Gilead Sciences Inc, it is strongly recommended by the guidelines, but "without taking resource into consideration, as pricing information was not available."

"Hepatitis C treatment is currently unaffordable to most patients in need. The challenge now is to ensure that everyone who needs these drugs can access them," Dr. Peter Beyer, Senior Advisor for the Essential Medicines and Health Products Department at WHO, said.

In March, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives asked Gilead Sciences Inc., maker of the Sovaldi hepatitis C treatment, to explain how it set its $84,000 price for a 12-week course.

Definitely effective with the higher cure rates and fewer side effects than older treatments, it has been targeted nonetheless by insurers and public health advocates because of its whopping cost.

But WHO believed the HCV drug prices can be lowered, as was in the case of HIV drugs.

"Experience has shown that a multi-pronged strategy is required to improve access to treatment, including creating demand for treatment. The development of WHO guidelines is a key step in this process."

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