Background/aim: The aim of the study was to estimate the prevalence, risk factors and genotype distribution of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in the general population older than 5 years of age in a southern Italian town. The positive predictive value of alanine transaminase (ALT) screening in identifying HCV positive subjects was also assessed.
Methods: Cluster random sampling from the census of the general population was used. ELISA and RIBA tests assessed the presence of anti-HCV; nested reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) was used to identify HCV-RNA; genotyping was performed by INNO-LIPA III. The association linking anti-HCV seropositivity with potential risk factors was assessed by multiple logistic regression analysis.
Results: Among the 488 subjects enrolled, 79 (16.2%) were anti-HCV positive. The prevalence increased from 1.2% in subjects 6-29 years of age to 42.1% in those > or = 60 years. Forty percent of these positive subjects also had abnormal ALT level and 54.4% were HCV RNA positive by PCR. The positive predictive value of the ALT test in identifying anti-HCV positive subjects was 65%; however, it was 46.7% in subjects younger than 60 years of age and 90.5% in those 60 or older. Genotype 1b was detected in 74% of subjects, type 2c in 23.3%, and type 1a in 2.3%. The only two variables significantly associated with HCV seropositivity in multivariate analysis were age older than 45 years (O.R. 8.5; CI 95%=3.0-24.1) and past use of glass syringes (O.R. 3.4; CI 95%=1.5-7.6).
Conclusions: These findings confirm that HCV infection is endemic in southern Italy, particularly among the elderly. Percutaneous exposure, such as injections with nondisposable, multiple-use, glass syringes used in the past for medical purposes may have played a major role in the spread of HCV infection. ALT screening is not useful in detecting HCV positive subjects in the general population, particularly among subjects who could benefit from antiviral therapy.