Use of polymerase chain reaction and antibody tests in the diagnosis of vertically transmitted hepatitis C virus infection

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Abstract

Data on patterns of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and antibody test results in infants born to hepatitis C virus (HCV)-infected mothers were systematically reviewed to aid development of optimum testing schedules and diagnostic criteria for vertically exposed infants and to facilitate early identification of infected infants. Survival and cross-sectional analyses were used to estimate the timing of initial PCR positivity and subsequent PCR negativity in infected infants, and maternal antibody loss in uninfected infants was estimated as a weighted average of individual study findings. Of 74 eligible infants with strong evidence of HCV infection, an estimated 89% (90% confidence interval, 80–95%) were first PCR positive by 3 months of age, and less than 10% had subsequent PCR negativity attributable to intermittent viraemia or resolved infection in the first 18 months of life. The negative predictive value of PCR at 3 months of age was greater than 98% at an assumed rate of 5% vertical transmission, but as low as 88% at 25% transmission. The inclusion of 22 infants, each with a single PCR-positive result, increased the estimated frequency of resolved infections but made little difference to other estimates. A minority of PCR-positive infants had periods of antibody negativity by second- or third-generation assays, and among 297 uninfected infants, maternal antibody was not detected beyond 18 months. Thus, the majority of infected infants may be persistently PCR positive from 3 months of age, and the negative predictive value of PCR at 3 months is generally high. However, poor repeatability of PCR, inadequate infant follow-up, and inclusion of postnatally infected infants limits interpretation of the pooled data. Further studies using standardised PCR methodologies are needed.