Background and methods: There are few data on the prevalence and clinical outcome of hepatitis C infection in children. We studied 458 children who underwent cardiac surgery in Munich, Germany, before 1991, when blood-donor screening for hepatitis C was introduced in Germany. Their mean age at first operation was 2.8 years; none of the children had received blood transfusions before or 'after cardiac surgery, and none of their mothers had antibodies to the hepatitis C virus (anti-HCV). We compared these patients with 458 control subjects matched for age and sex.
Results: Sixty-seven (14.6 percent) of the 458 patients who had undergone cardiac surgery had anti-HCV, as compared with 3 (0.7 percent) of the control subjects (P<0.001). At a mean interval of 19.8 years after the first operation, 37 (55 percent) of the 67 patients who were positive for anti-HCV had detectable HCV RNA in their blood. The infection had cleared in the other 30 patients, as evidenced by negative results on three polymerase-chain-reaction analyses performed at six-month intervals. Only 1 of the 37 patients who were positive for HCV RNA had elevated levels of liver enzymes; that patient had severe right-sided congestive heart failure. Of the 17 patients who underwent liver biopsies, only 3 had histologic signs of progressive liver damage. These three patients had additional risk factors: two had congestive heart failure, and the third had also been infected with hepatitis B virus.
Conclusions: Children who had undergone cardiac surgery in Germany before the implementation of blood-donor screening for hepatitis C had a substantial risk of acquiring the infection. However, after about 20 years, the virus had spontaneously cleared in many patients. The clinical course in those still infected seems more benign than would be expected in people infected as adults.