BACKGROUND: A retrospective-prospective survey of Italian children with hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection was planned in 1998 to explore the epidemiologic features of infection during the past decade. METHODS: Anti-HCV-positive patients (or HCV RNA-positive infants) aged 1 month to 16 years, consecutively observed in 20 pediatric Institutions, were considered. An anonymous epidemiologic questionnaire based on clinical records was used. RESULTS: From 1990 through March 1999, 606 patients were observed (296 boys, average age 5.8 years). Maternal infection (46% of cases) and blood transfusions (34%) were the most frequent risk factors. Of 279 infected mothers, 61% did not recall a putative source of infection (by history, many could possibly have had exposure through routes such as therapeutic injections with nondisposable material), whereas 94 (34%) admitted drug abuse, including 49 (17%) coinfected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Only 157 (26%) children were born after 1991: 90% of their mothers were infected (11% were HIV coinfected vs. 25% mothers of older children, P < 0.01). CONCLUSIONS: Maternal infection is a prominent source of pediatric HCV infection in Italy. The fact that most mothers had a history of covert exposure to HCV, probably through percutaneous routes that are no longer operating, and that the number of those with HIV coinfection has decreased suggests that the frequency of pediatric infection could decrease in the future.
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