Nucleic Acid Testing for Diagnosis of Perinatally Acquired Hepatitis C Virus Infection in Early Infancy

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Nov 2;73(9):e3340-e3346. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa949.


Background: Most US children with perinatal hepatitis C virus (HCV) exposure fail to receive the recommended anti-HCV antibody test at age ≥18 months. Earlier testing for viral RNA might facilitate increased screening, but sensitivity of this approach has not been established. We hypothesized that modern HCV-RNA RT-PCR platforms would adequately detect infected infants.

Methods: Nationwide Children's Hospital electronic health records from 1/1/2008 to 30/6/2018 were reviewed to identify perinatally exposed infants tested by HCV-RNA RT-PCR at age 2-6 months. Diagnostic performance was determined using a composite case definition: (1) infected children had positive repeat HCV-RNA testing or positive anti-HCV at age ≥24 months; (2) uninfected children lacked these criteria and had negative anti-HCV at age ≥18 months.

Results: 770 perinatally exposed infants underwent HCV-RNA testing at age 2-6 months. Of these, 28 (3.6%) tested positive; viremia was confirmed in all who underwent repeat testing (n = 27). Among 742 infants with negative HCV-RNA results, 226 received follow-up anti-HCV testing at age ≥18 months, of whom 223 tested negative. Three children had low-positive anti-HCV results at age 18-24 months that were negative upon retesting after age 24 months, possibly indicating waning maternal antibodies. Using the composite case definitions, early HCV-RNA screening demonstrated sensitivity of 100% (87.5-100%, Wilson-Brown 95% CI) and specificity of 100% (98.3-100%).

Conclusions: Modern HCV-RNA RT-PCR assays have excellent sensitivity for early diagnosis of perinatally acquired infection and could aid HCV surveillance given the substantial loss to follow-up at ≥18 months of age.

Keywords: hepatitis C virus; nucleic acid amplification test; perinatal infection; vertical transmission.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Hepacivirus / genetics
  • Hepatitis C Antibodies
  • Hepatitis C* / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Vertical
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious*
  • RNA, Viral


  • Hepatitis C Antibodies
  • RNA, Viral