BACKGROUND The effectiveness and tolerability of combination therapy for 12 months have not been evaluated sufficiently in chronic hepatitis C relapsers to interferon. AIMS To evaluate the sustained response to interferon plus ribavirin for 12 months in chronic hepatitis C relapsers. METHODS We included 55 chronic hepatitis C relapsers in a 12-month treatment protocol with interferon (3 MU thrice weekly) plus ribavirin (1-1.2 g/day). The effectiveness was evaluated using serum aminotransferase and hepatitis C virus RNA levels, alanine aminotransferase normalization and viraemia clearance after 12 months, defining the end-of-treatment response, and 6 months after completion of therapy, defining the sustained response. Adverse effects were recorded. RESULTS End-of-treatment response and sustained response were achieved in 47 (85%) and 37 (67%) patients, respectively; there were 10 (21%) relapsers after combination therapy. Predictive factors of sustained response included the genotype (non-1 95% vs. 1 48%; P < 0.001), lower viraemia (503 917 +/- 553 230 vs. 901 393 +/- 548 267 copies/mL; P < 0.005), higher alanine aminotransferase levels (137 +/- 75 vs. 103 +/- 41 IU/L; P < 0.05) and a lower gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase/alanine aminotransferase ratio (0.30 +/- 0.23 vs. 0.49 +/- 0.39; P < 0.05). Tolerance to therapy was good, with no withdrawals. CONCLUSIONS Interferon plus ribavirin treatment for 12 months in chronic hepatitis C relapsers yields high sustained response rates and is well tolerated. The sustained response is related to a non-1 genotype, lower baseline viraemia, higher alanine aminotransferase level and a lower gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase/alanine aminotransferase ratio.