Background/aims: This study aimed to assess the main features of hepatocellular carcinoma at the time of diagnosis in Italy, particularly in relation to the presence or absence of underlying cirrhosis, hepatitis virus marker patterns, age of the subjects and alpha-foetoprotein values.
Methods: A total of 1148 patients with hepatocellular carcinoma seen at 14 Italian hospitals in the 1-year period from May 1996 to May 1997 were the subjects of this prevalence study. Both newly diagnosed cases (incident cases) and cases diagnosed before May 1996 but still attending the hospitals during the study period (prevalent cases) were included.
Results: We found that 71.1% of cases were positive for hepatitis C virus antibodies but negative for HBsAg; in contrast, 11.5% were negative for anti-HCV but positive for HBsAg; 5.3% were positive for both markers; and 12.1% were negative for both viruses. The mean age of detection was over 60 years, with a younger mean age in HBsAg-positive compared to anti-HCV-positive patients (59.3 years vs. 65.6 years, p<0.01). The male-to-female ratio among HBsAg-positive patients was 10.4:1, in contrast to 2.8:1 among anti-HCV-positive patients (p<0.01). The majority of cases (93.1%) had underlying cirrhosis. Cirrhotic patients were more likely to be anti-HCV positive than non-cirrhotic cases (73.2% vs 43.9%; p<0.01); conversely, absence of hepatitis virus markers was more frequently observed in the non-cirrhotic than in the cirrhotic population (40.9% vs. 10.0%; p<0.01). Overall, the alpha-foetoprotein level was altered (>20 ng/ml) in 57.9% of patients; only 18% of cases presented diagnostic (>400 ng/ml) values. Anti-HCV positivity (O.R. 2.0; CI 95%=1.3-3.1) but not HBsAg positivity (O.R. 1.0; CI 95%=0.6-1.8) was shown to be an independent predictor of the likelihood of altered alpha-foetoprotein values by multivariate analysis.
Conclusions: These findings point to differences in the characteristics of the populations infected by hepatitis B and hepatitis C. Factors other than the hepatitis viruses are important in non-cirrhotic patients. A change in the relative prevalence of hepatitis virus markers among hepatocellular carcinoma cases was demonstrated, reflecting a significant change in the rate of HBV endemicity in the Italian population. Finally, the increased trend in the mortality rate from liver cancer in Italy from 4.8 per 100,000 in 1969 to 10.9 in 1994 may reflect the large cohort of subjects infected with HCV via the iatrogenic route during 1950s and 1960s when glass syringes were commonly used for medical treatment.