The history of the “natural history” of hepatitis C (1968–2009)


Leonard B. Seeff, MD, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive, and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, 31A Center Drive, Room 9A27, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA
Tel: +1 301 435 3338
Fax: +1 301 480 7926


In the late 1960's, only types A and B hepatitis were believed to exist, distinguished by circumstances of exposure and incubation periods. In the early 1970's, studies of transfusion recipients were begun with the belief that hepatitis B would be responsible should transfusion-associated hepatitis develop. After discovery of the viruses of hepatitis A and B, neither agent was found responsible, hence non-A, non-B (NANB) hepatitis. Initial follow-up of these cases showed that ∼ 50% developed chronic hepatitis based on persistence of serum enzymes for at least 6 months. Approximately 15 years later, after the hepatitis C virus had been identified as the cause for NANB hepatitis, chronic hepatitis was found to develop more frequently as indicated by persistent viral infection in over 80% of infected adults but in only about 50% of infected children or young women. Follow-up over 2 to 4 decades indicated that many infected persons developed progressive hepatic fibrosis, sometimes culminating in cirrhosis and/or liver cancer. Long-term natural history studies have proved to be challenging because disease onset is often silent and progression extremely slow. Differing strategies have been used to determine the natural history, the descriptions and results of which are presented in this review.