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Acute hepatitis C: a systematic review.

INTRODUCTION: The annual incidence of acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) has fallen in recent years, primarily because of effective blood screening efforts and increased education on the dangers of needle sharing. However, hepatitis C infection is still relatively frequent in certain populations. Most patients infected with HCV are unaware of their exposure and remain asymptomatic during the initial stages of the infection, making early diagnosis during the acute phase (first 6 months after infection) unlikely. While some of those infections will have a spontaneous resolution, the majority will progress to chronic HCV. We scanned the literature for predictors of spontaneous resolution and treatment during the acute stage of HCV to identify factors that would assist in treatment decision making.

METHODS: A medical literature search through MEDLINE was conducted using the keyword "acute hepatitis C" with a variety of keywords focused on (a) epidemiology, (b) natural history and outcome, (c) diagnosis, (d) mode of transmission, and (e) treatment.

RESULTS: There are no reliable predictors for spontaneous resolution of HCV infection and a significant percentage of individuals exposed to HCV develop persistent infections that progress to chronic liver disease. An intriguing approach is to treat acute HCV and prevent the development of chronic hepatitis. Several clinical trials showed that treatment of hepatitis C infection during the acute phase is associated with high sustained virological response (SVR) rates ranging between 75% and 100%. Although there is a prevailing consensus that intervention during the acute phase is associated with improved viral eradication, relevant clinical questions have remained unanswered by clinical trials. Optimization of therapy for acute hepatitis C infection and identification of predictors of SVR represent a real challenge.

CONCLUSION: With more than 170 million chronic hepatitis C patients worldwide and an increase in the related morbidity and mortality projected for the next decade, an improvement in our ability to diagnose and treat patients with acute hepatitis C would have a significant impact on the prevalence of chronic hepatitis and its associated complications particularly in countries with a high endemic background of the infection.

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