Epidemiological and virological analysis of couples infected with hepatitis C virus

H Zylberberg, V Thiers, D Lagorce, G Squadrito, F Leone, P Berthelot, C Bréchot, S Pol
Gut 1999, 45 (1): 112-6

BACKGROUND: If transmission of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection through parenteral exposure is well documented, sexual transmission of HCV is still debated.

AIMS: To perform extensive epidemiological and virological analysis in 24 couples in which each spouse was anti-HCV positive in order to delineate more precisely potential sexual transmission of HCV.

PATIENTS: Twenty four couples in which each partner was anti-HCV positive. These 48 spouses were recruited in a liver unit by regular screening of spouses of index patients.

METHODS: All 48 spouses completed an epidemiological questionnaire on risk factors for HCV. Qualitative detection of serum HCV RNA and determination of HCV type by genotyping and serotyping were performed. Sequence analysis of HCV strains by phylogenetic analysis was carried out in seven couples with concordant genotypes.

RESULTS: The mean (SD) partnership duration was 12 (10) years. Serum HCV RNA was detected in both partners in 18 of the couples (75%) and in only one partner in six of the couples (25%). HCV typing showed concordant genotypes in 12 couples (50%), discordant genotypes in seven (29%), and in the other five couples (21%) only one spouse could be genotyped. Of the 48 spouses, 33 had a major risk factor for HCV transmission such as transfusion (n = 6) and intravenous drug use (n = 27). Eleven of the 12 couples infected with the same HCV genotype had at least one parenteral risk factor for viral transmission in both spouses. Whatever the genotype concordance, in most couples (75%), both spouses showed parenteral risk factors for viral transmission. Sequence analysis of HCV strains was possible in seven of 12 couples with identical genotype and showed different and identical isolates in four and three couples respectively.

CONCLUSION: The study emphasises the risk of overestimating the importance of a very low sexual HCV transmission risk as against other, mainly parenteral, risk factors.

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