Spotlight Series on Hepatitis C

Medical News

Theory Links Hepatitis C to Polio Syringes in Italy

April 30, 2003

This article is part of The Body PRO's archive. Because it contains information that may no longer be accurate, this article should only be considered a historical document.

Improperly cleaned glass syringes used to administer the polio vaccine during the 1950s and 1960s may have spread the hepatitis C virus, researchers from Italy's National Cancer Institute have suggested. According to Dr. Maurizio Montella and colleagues, this may explain why southern Italy has a particularly high rate of the chronic liver disease.

Reusable glass syringes were used in the mid-1950s and 1960s to give the injected Salk vaccine to protect against polio in southern Italy until a new oral version, the Sabin vaccine, was introduced in 1965. "The phenomenon is circumscribed to certain areas -- where glass syringes were widely used, there is an increase of hepatitis C cases," said Montella.

Montella and associates examined the link by referring to a previous investigation, which included a sample of 1,908 people ages 30-60. Originally enrolled as healthy controls in another study, the subjects were known not to have used IV drugs or have had blood transfusions, both of which contribute to the spread of hepatitis C. Test results indicated that 7 percent of men and 5 percent of women ages 40-49 had antibodies to the hepatitis C virus, suggesting infection. Subjects born between the 1940s and early 1960s were three times as likely as younger subjects to have the virus, the researchers reported. Overall, roughly 6 percent of older adults had been HCV-infected, compared with about 2 percent of those ages 30-39. The full report, "Assessment of Iatrogenic Transmission of HCV in Southern Italy: Was the Cause the Salk Polio Vaccination?" was published in the Journal of Medical Virology (2003;70:49-50).

"This is indisputable data, and it is linked to the years when the Salk polio vaccination was administered," said Montella. "The high rate of HCV is most likely attributable to a misuse and reuse of needles and glass syringes being inadequately sterilized." The authors go on to recommend that "it will be useful to inform the population of southern Italy about the implication to their future health," due to chronic hepatitis C infections sometimes not causing any symptoms.

Hepatitis C prevalence in the United States is about 1.8 percent and ranges from 0.5-9.0 percent in Western Europe. Approximately 4 million Americans and 150 million people worldwide have HCV, of which about 20 percent will develop severe and possibly fatal liver damage, or cirrhosis, which increases the risk of liver cancer.

Back to other CDC news for April 30, 2003

Previous Updates

Adapted from:
Reuters Health
04.10.03; Rossella Lorenzi

This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.


The content on this page is free of advertiser influence and was produced by our editorial team. See our content and advertising policies.