The clinical features of 'cryptogenic' chronic liver disease and the prevalence of antibody to hepatitis C virus (HCV) in serum have been investigated in 33 Italian children (mean age 5 years). The diagnosis was based on the persistence of increased alanineaminotransferase values for longer than 6 months after the exclusion of biliary diseases, of extra-hepatic causes of hypertransaminasemia, of infection with known hepatotropic viruses and of autoimmune or metabolic disorders. Five patients had been transfused early in life, three had undergone surgery and one girl's mother had had acute non-A, non-B hepatitis during pregnancy. The remaining patients had no history of overt parenteral exposure. At presentation only 11 patients were symptomatic, the others had been referred after a check-up for intercurrent diseases. Liver histology performed in 21 cases showed persistent or mild active hepatitis in 18 cases and severe hepatitis or cirrhosis in three cases. Anti-HCV antibodies were found in 48% of the cases, including 88% with obvious exposure and 33% of the remaining cases. During a mean follow-up period of 5 years (range 1-14 years) only 11% of the cases achieved sustained biochemical remission, although none developed signs of liver failure. There was no significant difference in the clinical features and outcome of the disease between anti-HCV-positive and -negative patients. The results of this study suggest that HCV is implicated in most cases of 'cryptogenic' chronic liver disease observed in Italian children with a history of parenteral exposure and in at least one-third of the cases without overt exposure.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)
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