Background & aims: Acute hepatitis C virus infection accounts for approximately 20% of cases of acute hepatitis today. The aim of this study was to define the natural course of the disease and to contribute to the development of treatment strategies for acute hepatitis C virus.
Methods: The diagnosis of acute hepatitis C virus in 60 patients was based on seroconversion to anti-hepatitis C virus antibodies or clinical and biochemical criteria and on the presence of hepatitis C virus RNA in the first serum sample.
Results: Fifty-one of 60 (85%) patients presented with symptomatic acute hepatitis C virus. In the natural (untreated) course of acute symptomatic hepatitis C (n = 46), spontaneous clearance was observed in 24 patients (52%), usually within 12 weeks after the onset of symptoms, whereas all asymptomatic patients (n = 9) developed chronic hepatitis C. The start of antiviral therapy (interferon-alpha with or without ribavirin) beyond 3 months after the onset of acute hepatitis induced sustained viral clearance in 80% of treated patients.
Conclusions: The management of acute hepatitis C has to take into account the high rate of spontaneous viral clearance within 12 weeks after the onset of symptomatic disease. Treatment of only those patients who remain hepatitis C virus RNA positive for more than 3 months after the onset of disease led to an overall viral clearance (self-limited and treatment induced) in 91% of patients, and unnecessary treatment was avoided in those with spontaneous viral clearance. Patients with asymptomatic acute hepatitis C virus infection are unlikely to clear the infection spontaneously and should be treated as early as possible.