The efficiency of hepatitis C virus (HCV) transmission by sexual activity remains controversial. We conducted a cross-sectional study of HCV-positive subjects and their partners to estimate the risk for HCV infection among monogamous heterosexual couples. A total of 500 anti-HCV-positive, human immunodeficiency virus-negative index subjects and their long-term heterosexual partners were studied. Couples were interviewed separately for lifetime risk factors for HCV infection, within-couple sexual practices, and sharing of personal grooming items. Blood samples were tested for anti-HCV, HCV RNA, and HCV genotype and serotype. Sequencing and phylogenetic analysis determined the relatedness of virus isolates among genotype-concordant couples. The majority of HCV-positive index subjects were non-Hispanic white, with a median age of 49 years (range, 26-79 years) and median of 15 years (range, 2-52 years) of sexual activity with their partners. Overall, HCV prevalence among partners was 4% (n=20), and nine couples had concordant genotype/serotype. Viral isolates in three couples (0.6%) were highly related, consistent with transmission of virus within the couple. Based on 8,377 person-years of follow-up, the maximum incidence rate of HCV transmission by sex was 0.07% per year (95% confidence interval, 0.01-0.13) or approximately one per 190,000 sexual contacts. No specific sexual practices were related to HCV positivity among couples.
Conclusion: The results of this study provide quantifiable risk information for counseling long-term monogamous heterosexual couples in which one partner has chronic HCV infection. In addition to the extremely low estimated risk for HCV infection in sexual partners, the lack of association with specific sexual practices provides unambiguous and reassuring counseling messages.
Copyright © 2012 American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases.