There’s an insidious viral infection that typically produces no symptoms for years or even decades—so most people don’t realize that they’re infected until potentially deadly organ damage occurs. And it has become so common, particularly among baby boomers, that the CDC recently recommended testing for all Americans born between 1945 and 1965, as well as for people of all ages with known risk factors or possible signs of infection.

We’re talking about the hepatitis C virus (HCV). Unfortunately, unlike certain other types of viral hepatitis that can be prevented with vaccination, there is no vaccine for HCV—and in about half of cases, the standard medications that have been used to treat HCV have failed to clear up the infection. As a result, about 70% of patients develop chronic hepatitis…and 30% of them progress to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and end-stage liver disease.

That’s the bad news. The good news, according to a recent Italian study, is that adding vitamin B-12 to the standard regimen significantly improves the success rate for the treatment of this life-threatening disease.

How the study was done: HCV patients were randomly assigned to receive either the standard treatment of a twice-daily antiviral pill called ribavirin and a weekly injection of interferonor these same medications plus monthly injections of 5,000 micrograms of vitamin B-12. Treatment continued for 24 to 48 weeks, and researchers checked periodically to see whether the virus was eliminated from the body.

Results: 12 weeks into the study, the response rate was already 21% higher among patients receiving vitamin B-12, compared with the standard treatment group…and six months after treatment ended, patients in the B-12 group were 34% more likely to be free of the virus. Interestingly, the beneficial effects of B-12 were especially pronounced among patients with a particularly difficult-to-treat type of HCV called genotype 1. Vitamin B-12 injections were not associated with any increased risk for side effects.

Update: The recent introduction of two new antiviral drugs, boceprevir and telaprevir, now provides additional options for HCV patients. However, these medications can have serious side effects…they are very expensive…they raise concerns about the development of drug-resistant HCV strains…and, as with any new drug, their long-term risks are unknown. So until more is revealed about the new drugs, the study researchers say that the addition of vitamin B-12 represents a safe and inexpensive option for improving the effectiveness of the standard HCV treatment. In addition, it is possible that B-12 may even boost patients’ response to these new drugs.