Background/Aims: Small, uncontrolled studies of ribavirin for patients with chronic hepatitis C have reported efficacy in chronic hepatitis C. We have evaluated the efficacy and safety of a 24-week course of oral ribavirin in patients with chronic hepatitis C, compared to placebo. Methods: A total of 114 patients were randomised to ribavirin or placebo. Ribavirin was administered in doses of 1000 or 1200 mg/day for 24 weeks. Efficacy was determined in the intention-to-treat population: 76 received ribavirin and 38 placebo. Results: Ribavirin was significantly more effective than placebo in reducing and normalising serum ALT levels: 42/76 (55%) of ribavirin-treated patients vs 2/38 (5%) placebo recipients had either normalisation of the ALT levels or a reduction from baseline of at least 50% (p < 0.001). ALT levels were normal in 22/76 (29%) of ribavirin-treated patients vs 0/38 placebo recipients (p < 0.001). Twenty-four weeks after stopping ribavirin, the majority of patients had abnormal ALT levels. There was no difference between the treatment groups in reduction or disappearance of HCV-RNA levels. HCV RNA disappeared during treatment in 3% of ribavirin-treated patients and 3% of placebo recipients. More ribavirin than placebo patients showed improvement in total Knodell score (45% vs 31%), but these differences were not statistically significant. Analysis of each component of a histology activity index revealed no statistically significant differences between treatment groups. Ribavirin patients had fewer lymphoid aggregates than did placebo recipients at the post-treatment assessment (p = 0.05). Ribavirin was associated with reversible haemolytic anaemia: a fall in haemoglobin occurred in 3% of placebo- and 32% (25/78) of ribavirin-treated patients, respectively (p < 0.001). Conclusions: These data indicate that ribavirin was no more effective than placebo in reducing or eliminating HCV-RNA levels, and was not significantly more effective than placebo in improving hepatic histology after 6 months of treatment. The role of a 6-month treatment of chronic hepatitis C with ribavirin alone, without a significant effect on HCV RNA, is therefore limited.