BACKGROUND:  Since 2002, blood donors in Poland have been tested not only for hepatitis C virus antibodies (anti-HCV) but also for HCV RNA or HCV core antigen. This screening program identifies asymptomatic, recently infected individuals with no anti-HCV (in the “window period”). The aim of this study was to compare HCV genotype and subtype distribution in window-period (wp) donors, anti-HCV-positive donors, and chronic hepatitis C (CHC) patients.

STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS:  A total of 2.37 milion donors were investigated for HCV RNA, and 340,000 for HCV core antigen. HCV genotypes and subtypes were investigated in 50 HCV RNA-positive, anti-HCV-negative donors; in 70 anti-HCV-positive donors; and in 170 CHC patients. Re-questioning of wp donors for probable risk factors was introduced.

RESULTS:  HCV RNA was detected in 50 donors of 2.71 million (1:54,200) anti-HCV-negative blood donations. Of these 50 donors, 36 percent exhibited Subtype 1b, whereas Subtypes 3a and 4c/d were identified in 40 and 14 percent, respectively. In anti-HCV-positive donors and CHC patients, the frequency of Subtype 1b was significantly higher (75.7 and 85.3%, respectively); in both groups the lower frequency of Subtypes 3a (14.3 and 10.6%, respectively) and 4c/d (4.3 and 1.2%, respectively) was found. The probable source of infection was identified in 9 wp donors.

CONCLUSIONS:  The frequency of wp donors is 18.5 per 1 million. The unexpected high frequency of Genotype 4 and Subtype 3a and the low frequency of Subtype 1b was observed in wp donors compared to anti-HCV-positive individuals. Additional epidemiologic questioning introduced after HCV RNA detection may help to identify infection source.