Researchers who examined the effect of treating hepatitis C patients with the newer generation of oral drugs suggest while these medications may cost tens of thousands of dollars for a 12-week course, they could avert billions in lost productivity.

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The drugs interfere with enzymes that help hepatitis C multiply.

They conclude that the higher cure rate and reduced side effects of treating hepatitis C patients with an all-oral combination of ledipasvir and sofosbuvir (LDV/SOF) led to substantially less absenteeism and better work productivity that could save economies of the US and five European countries more than $3.2 billion a year.

The study featured at Digestive Disease Week 2015, an international gathering being held May 17-19 in Washington DC of clinicians and researchers from gastroenterology, hepatology, endoscopy and gastrointestinal surgery.

Lead researcher Dr. Zobair Younossi, chairman of the department of medicine at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus, VA, says we have known for a long time about the devastating effect that chronic hepatitis C can have on patients’ health:

“But given the significant side effects previously associated with treating the disease, notably fatigue and neuropsychiatric side effects, we were interested in looking at the impact of new treatments on patients’ ability to work, and in a broader sense, how this affects employers and overall economies.”

For their study, Dr. Younossi and colleagues used data on over 1,900 chronic hepatitis C patients treated with LDV/SOF in a clinical trial. The drug combination – which interferes with enzymes that help the hepatitis C virus multiply – showed a cure rate of 94-99% with minimal side effects, they note.

They contrast this with older, more traditional treatments, such as interferon and ribavirin that can have various side- effects, such as fatigue, flu-like symptoms, depression and lowered blood cell counts.

The patients in their sample – including participants from the US and Europe – had filled in surveys that asked them questions specifically about work productivity, level of activity and health problems arising during the clinical trial.

The researchers gathered data not only on absenteeism but “presenteeism” where participants show up to work but are less productive.

They estimate that the reduced absenteeism and increased productivity resulting from curing hepatitis C with LDV/SOF could result in annual savings of $2.67 billion for the US and $556 million for five European countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

Dr. Younossi says these are just preliminary results, and while they are encouraging, they need to be confirmed with further studies looking at the “real-world” effects on work productivity and associated economic gains outside the clinical trial setting.

“Chronic hepatitis C is more than just a problem for the patient,” notes Dr. Younossi, “it has a ripple effect that impacts society at large.” He concludes:

While previous reports have found the cost of these drugs as certainly significant, the long-term benefits of curing patients with hepatitis C makes this a worthwhile investment.”

The study was funded through a grant provided by Gilead Sciences, Inc, who market ledipasvir and sofosbuvir under the brand name Harvoni.

The prices of Harvoni and other new hepatitis C drugs have been the subject of great controversy lately – with reports that the treatments are straining the budgets of both public and private payers.

The debate recently took on a new twist when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) asked the US Department of Veterans Affairs to “invoke emergency powers to make expensive hepatitis C drugs available at affordable prices to treat tens of thousands of veterans now being denied the most effective care.”

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned that trials of another new course of antiviral therapy – based on a combination of daclatasvir, asunaprevir and beclabuvir – resulted in nearly all the patients with chronic hepatitis C infection becoming virus-free, including those with liver disease.