Background: Little is known of the incidence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection, and the frequency of spontaneous viral clearance in the general population is unknown. We conducted an epidemiological study in two Apennine towns in northern Italy.
Methods: Anti-HCV (ELISA and RIBA third generation) and HCV-RNA by polymerase chain reaction were tested in thawed sera from an adult general population of Loiano-Monghidoro in 1986 and 1996, obtained in the context of the MICOL (Multicenter Italian Study on Cholelithiasis). In 1999, anti-HCV positive subjects and sex and age matched controls were recalled in order to identify risk factors for acquiring HCV infection and to assess the family composition of anti-HCV+ subjects.
Results: For 1646 subjects, sera were available from both 1986 and 1996 (mean age in 1986 43 (0.39) years). In 1986, 57 (3.46%) subjects were HCV antibody positive (HCV-Ab+). Eight new cases were recorded in 1996: adult incidence was 50.3 cases/100 000 inhabitants/year. Fifty three of 63 (84.1%) HCV-Ab+ sera were also HCV-RNA+. Genotype 2a/2c accounted for 44% and 1b for 47.0% of cases. HCV-Ab+ subjects had higher serum levels of alanine aminotransferase with respect to controls (p<0.005), as did subjects infected with genotype 1 with respect to those with genotype 2 (p<0.05). Eleven of 65 (16.9%) HCV-Ab+ subjects spontaneously cleared HCV-Ab; 7/11 also lost HCV-RNA− in both serum and leucocytes. Sixteen anti-HCV+ subjects belonged to families containing more than one infected member. Married couples accounted for 10 of these 16 subjects. In four of these five married couples, HCV genotype was identical in the two spouses.
Conclusions: In rural northern Italy, the adult incidence of HCV is approximately 50 cases/100 000 inhabitants/year. Our findings suggest that as many as 17% of infected subjects may spontaneously clear HCV-Ab. Interfamilial transmission seems to have a role in the spread of infection.
- hepatitis C
- general population
- viral clearance
- HCV, hepatitis C virus
- HCV-Ab, HCV antibody
- RT-PCR, reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction
- ALT, alanine aminotransferase
- OD, optical density
- IFN, interferon α
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