Background: The studies on hepatitis C virus (HCV) vertical transmission, the effect of potential risk factors and the role of breast-feeding have reported conflicting results.
Patients and methods: Seventy-three infants of 63 anti-HCV-positive and anti-HIV-negative mothers were studied from 1993 to 1999 in the south of Spain. The mean period of follow-up in children was 29.2 +/- 19 months (range, 8 to 76 months); 6 (8%) children were lost to follow-up. Breast milk was studied for HCV-RNA in 68 samples of 35 mothers.
Results: Alanine aminotransferase was high in 19 (26%) and HCV-RNA was positive in 46 (63%) pregnant woman. Breast milk HCV-RNA was negative in nonviremic mothers and positive in 20% of the viremic mothers. The overall rate of vertical HCV transmission was 11.9% (n = 8) (95% confidence interval, 6 to 23%) if HCV-RNA was positive one or more times, but only 1.5% (n = 1) (95% confidence interval, 0.1 to 9%) if HCV-RNA was permanently positive. Seven HCV-infected children did not develop antibodies to HCV, and they had a spontaneous clearance of the virus. A 10-month-old baby was HCV-RNA-positive from birth to the end of the follow-up. The genotype in each of the infants was consistent with that of their mother. The rate of HCV transmission was higher for infants of mothers with higher HCV viremia (P < 0.01) and also for infants whose mothers were HCV-RNA-positive in breast milk (P < 0.05). There were no statistically significant differences between other risk factors.
Conclusion: The presence of transitory viremia without seroconversion indicates that the vertical transmission of HCV is not important. This could be related to the viral charge and ingestion of milk of HCV-RNA-positive mothers. However, to advise avoidance of maternal breast feeding, it would be necessary to conduct larger studies.