BACKGROUND: Monitoring disease incidence and transmission patterns is important to characterize groups at risk for hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. Clinical cases generally represent about 20% to 30% of all newly acquired infections.
METHODS: We used sentinel surveillance to determine incidence and transmission patterns for acute hepatitis C in the United States using data from 25 years of population-based surveillance in the general community. Acute cases of hepatitis C were identified from 1982 through 2006 by a stimulated passive surveillance system in 4 to 6 US counties. Cases were defined by a discrete onset of symptoms, alanine aminotransferase (ALT) levels greater than 2.5 times the upper limit of normal (×ULN), negative findings for serologic markers for acute hepatitis A and B, and positive findings for antibody to HCV or HCV RNA. Incidence and frequency of reported risk factors were the main outcome measures.
RESULTS: Of 2075 patients identified, the median age was 31 years, 91.5% had ALT values greater than 7 × ULN, 77.3% were jaundiced, 22.5% were hospitalized, and 1.2% died. Incidence averaged 7.4 per 100 000 individuals (95% confidence interval [CI], 6.4-8.5 per 100 000) during 1982 to 1989 then declined averaging 0.7 per 100 000 (95% CI, 0.5-1.0 per 100 000) during 1994 to 2006. Among 1748 patients interviewed (84.2%), injection drug use (IDU) was the most commonly reported risk factor. The average number of IDU-related cases declined paralleling the decline in incidence, but the proportion of IDU-related cases rose from 31.8% (402 of 1266) during 1982 to 1989 to 45.6% (103 of 226) during 1994 to 2006. Among IDU-related cases reported during 1994 to 2006, 56 of 61 individuals (91.8%) had been in a drug treatment program and/or incarcerated.
CONCLUSIONS: The incidence of acute HCV declined substantially over the 25 years of population-based surveillance. Despite declines, IDU is the most common risk factor for new HCV infection.