BACKGROUND: Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is the cause of almost all cases of parenterally transmitted non-A, non-B viral hepatitis (NANBH). HCV is an RNA virus, unrelated to the hepatitis viruses, A, B, D, or E; it was first identified in 1989. Although most infections become chronic, and it may lead to chronic liver disease, most patients with HCV infection are asymptomatic. The predominant modes of transmission are by blood, blood products, or other parenteral exposure, particularly injecting drug use. More contentious is the role of sexual transmission, although evidence for this was provided by studies of NANBH. OBJECTIVE: This review considers the evidence for sexual transmission, and the types of studies used to estimate the rate of transmission and the factors that may influence it. METHOD: A Medline search using the keywords hepatitis C, sex, transmission, and prevalence in MeSH and free text. References in papers were searched, and some unpublished data identified. References were further selected to illustrate different methodologies. FINDINGS: Evidence for sexual transmission is provided by several types of study including prevalence studies in groups at risk of other STDs, investigation of cases identified from surveillance reports, and cross sectional and longitudinal partner studies. Many studies are limited by their small size, the sensitivity and specificity of early assays, lack of controls, or the difficulty of excluding other routes of transmission. One prospective cohort study reported an incidence of 12 per 1000 person years in the sexual partners of HCV infected patients. 1-3% of partners of HCV infected patients are found to be infected in cross sectional studies. Co-infection with HIV, duration of the relationship, or chronic liver disease may be independent cofactors increasing the risk of transmission. A meta-analysis of selected studies may be informative, and further larger prospective studies are required. There is a small but definite risk of sexual transmission of hepatitis C.
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