Background. More than two-thirds of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections in Western countries are caused by injection drug use, but prospective clinical data regarding the most common mode of HCV acquisition are rare, in part because acute-phase HCV infection is usually asymptomatic. Methods. To characterize acute-phase HCV infection, 179 HCV antibody-negative injection drug users were prospectively evaluated; 62 (34%) of these patients had seroconverted. Twenty of the participants who seroconverted had long-term follow-up with consistent monthly sampling before and after seroconversion, allowing detailed study. Results. The first indication of HCV infection was the presence of HCV RNA in serum, which preceded elevation of alanine transaminase levels and total bilirubin levels to ≥2 times baseline in 45% and 77% of patients, respectively. No subjects had jaundice. The median time from initial viremia to seroconversion was 36 days (range, 32-46 days). In one instance, viremia was detected 434 days before seroconversion. However, in no other case was HCV RNA detected >63 days before seroconversion. In subjects with viral persistence, a stable level of HCV RNA in the blood was noted in some subjects within 60 days after the initial detection of viremia, but in others, it was not apparent until >1 year later. In subjects with long-term viral clearance, HCV became persistently undetectable as early as 94 and as late as 620 days after initial viremia. Conclusions. These data underscore the importance of nucleic acid screening of blood donations to prevent HCV transmission and of long-term follow-up to ascertain whether there is viral persistence, at least among injection drug users.
ASJC Scopus subject areas