Twenty-five years ago no one had even heard of the hepatitis C virus. Today it is a leading cause of liver cancer and a major reason why people get liver transplants. Globally it kills about 350,000 people a year; in the U.S., more people now die of hepatitis C than of AIDS.
The infection can be cured—albeit with debilitating side effects. Standard treatment with interferon and ribavirin causes fever, headaches, fatigue, depression and anemia. Such therapy may last as long as 11 months and clears the infection in 50 to 70 percent of cases. The recent addition of protease inhibitors, a class of medications that was first used against HIV, has improved cure rates and lessened treatment time. Unfortunately, the newer drugs work only against the type of hepatitis C most common in North America, Europe and Japan, so they are not equally effective around the world.