Background: Only one-fifth of chronic alcoholic patients develop chronic liver disease in spite of continuous alcohol abuse. Hepatitis C has been proposed to be one of several suggested factors contributing to the development of liver disease.
Methods: In 201 consecutive chronic alcoholic patients admitted to the hospital for detoxification, antibodies to hepatitis C virus (HCV) were determined, using second-generation enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and recombinant immunoblot assay (RIBA) tests. Sera from patients with antibodies were tested with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to detect HCV RNA and subsequently genotyped.
Results: Twenty-nine patients (14%) were positive in the ELISA and RIBA tests. HCV RNA was detected in 23 of the 29 (79%); 21 could be genotyped. Previous intravenous drug abuse was present in 18 of 29 (58%) in the positive group versus 3 of 172 (2%) in the negative group (p < 0.001), whereas the prevalence of previous blood transfusions did not differ between the groups. In one-third of the positive cases no obvious route of transmission was found. On the basis of clinical and biochemical variables and, if available, histology, altogether 6 of 29 (21%) HCV-positive patients were classified as having severe liver disease as compared with 12 of 172 (7%) HCV-negative patients (p < 0.05). HCV-positive patients with liver disease were younger than HCV-negative patients with liver disease (p < 0.05).
Conclusions: Hepatitis C virus infection is common among chronic alcoholic patients in Stockholm, especially among patients with a history of intravenous drug abuse. To confirm ongoing infection, detection of HCV RNA is necessary. This infection seems to be a factor contributing to the development of liver disease in alcoholic patients.