December 18, 2002
Rates of unsafe sex and, not surprisingly, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are increasing in Western Europe and North America. British researchers have done a preliminary study that suggests hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection may be increasingly transmitted sexually in HIV positive people.
Doctors in London (UK) analysed their database and found that between 1996 and 1997 less than 1% of their 1,930 clients who visited a clinic for treatment of STDs or HIV were positive for HCV. In the period 2001 to 2002, the proportion of people testing positive for HCV tripled. Researchers were able to identify and contact 23 of these previously HCV negative people for interviews. All but two of the people were also HIV positive. The reason that HCV testing was done was because many of the people had higher-than-normal levels of the liver enzyme ALT, so doctors suspected liver damage due to hepatitis.
In interviews, the doctors found that four people had a history of injection drug use while none had received blood transfusions. The doctors noted that 15 patients had recent unsafe sex, and in the past year, eight of them were diagnosed with syphilis. In four people there were no obvious risk factors for HCV transmission.
The doctors acknowledge that the numbers of HCV positive people in their sample are small. The low rate of injection drug use, combined with a background of unsafe sex and transmission of STDs including syphilis, lead the doctors to suspect that many of the people in their study had acquired HCV via sex. However, before leaping to the conclusion that an epidemic of sexually transmitted hep C is about to occur, they recommend that a larger study is needed to confirm these findings.