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Abstract

Much controversy surrounds the issue of the natural history of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Many authorities view the disease as inexorably progressive with a high probability of advancing over time to cirrhosis and occasionally hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and, therefore, likely to be responsible for causing death. Others regard chronic hepatitis C as having a variable outcome, the majority of infected persons not dying from the disease, but more likely from the comorbid conditions that so often accompany infection by this agent, or from more common medical conditions. Disagreements probably derive from the manner of conduct of the study and the populations studied. Efforts to determine natural history are handicapped by the primary characteristics of the disease, namely that its onset rarely is recognized and its course is prolonged exceedingly. Thus, different outcomes have come from retrospective rather than from prospective studies, but both have concluded that at least 20% of chronically infected adults develop cirrhosis within 20 years. More recent studies that used a retrospective/prospective approach, focusing largely on young infected individuals, have produced different results. Among these young people, particularly young women, spontaneous resolution of the viral infection is more common than previously thought and cirrhosis has been identified in 5% or fewer of them. The major failing for all groups studied, young and old, is that natural history studies have rarely exceeded the first 2 decades, so that outcome beyond this time is not known, other than through modeling. Several host-related and extraneous factors probably affect the natural history.