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Abstract

Among 248 asymptomatic blood donors positive for antibody to hepatitis C virus (anti-HCV) enrolled in a long-term prospective study, 86% had chronic HCV infection and 14% appeared to have recovered as assessed by serial determinations of serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels and HCV RNA by polymerase chain reaction. Established parenteral risk factors for HCV transmission were identified in 75% of donors. In addition, there was a strong independent association between HCV positivity and cocaine snorting, suggesting that shared snorting devices may be a covert route of parenteral transmission. Ear piercing in males was also significantly associated with transmission. There was no evidence for sexual spread. Although the majority of HCV carriers had both biochemical and histological evidence of chronic viral hepatitis, the extent of liver injury was generally mild. Among a larger population of 280 HCV RNA-positive donors, 17% had repeatedly normal ALT levels, 45% had levels that did not exceed twice, and only 22% had levels that exceeded five times the upper limit of the normal range. Among 81 patients who underwent liver biopsy, only 13% had evidence of severe hepatitis (8%) or cirrhosis (5%), despite a duration of infection that generally exceeded 15 years. No severe histological lesions were observed in blood donors with chronic HCV infection who had repeatedly normal ALT levels. In both donors and blood recipients, the frequency of severe morbidity or mortality related to HCV infection was less than 10% during the first two decades of infection. Further long-term studies are required to see if the progression to severe outcomes continues to accrue at this slow pace or whether it accelerates during subsequent decades.