Hepatitis C virus infection rate in volunteer blood donors from the Western Cape : comparison of screening tests and PCR

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South African Medical Journal

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INTRODUCTION: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) antibody seroprevalence studies overestimate the true infection rate. No data exist on the incidence of HCV or its clinical features in blood donors of sub-Saharan Africa. AIMS: To establish the true incidence of HCV infection in volunteer blood donors in the Western Cape, and compare risk factors and clinical and biochemical features of viraemic and non-viraemic subjects. METHODS: All donors attending the Western Province Blood Transfusion Service between December 1992 and August 1994 were screened prospectively for anti-HCV using the Abbott second-generation assay. Positive donors were evaluated clinically and biochemically. Their sera were examined for HCV-RNA by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). RESULTS: Of 66314 donors screened, 275 (0.41%) were anti-HCV-positive. Of these 13.6% were PCR-positive (0.056% of all donors). PCR-positive patients had more risk factors for HCV acquisition (P < 0.01), symptoms of hepatitis (P = 0.02) and clinical signs of liver disease (P = 0.05) and higher alanine (P < 0.0001) and aspartate aminotransferase levels (P < 0.0001) than PCR-negative donors. However, clinical and biochemical features did not discriminate adequately between PCR-positive and negative donors. Liver biopsies performed in 9 of 13 PCR-positive cases showed mild inflammation, but no cirrhosis.