Hepatitis C screening programs and treatment outreach tend to focus on three key populations: Baby Boomers, IV drug users, and prison populations. This is understandable, since rates of infection are notable in these high-risk groups. However, children infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) deserve attention, too. Of the more than 4 million people with HCV in the United States, approximately 250,000 of them are children.
For children, the likely route of infection traces back to mother-to-child transmission from HCV-infected pregnant women. The higher the mother’s viral load, the higher the risk of infection for her child. The infection can be spread whether birth is vaginal or C-section, since the virus from the mother’s body can cross the placenta to the fetus. In fact, up to 10% of children born to mothers with HCV will be infected with this chronic and life-threatening virus. A common scenario is for the mother to be an IV drug user, which can complicate the diagnosis of the child, if the parent does not pursue testing for the child. The screening test for HCV is not accurate until the infant is 18 months old, since HCV-related antibodies from the mother can stay in the blood of an infant for that long, even if the child does not have an infection.
There are fewer HCV medications approved for use in children, compared to the number of medications approved by the FDA for adults. But the positive news here is that there are approved medications for this young population. Hepatitis C does not need to be a death sentence, and certainly not so in children.
Kukielka E. Researchers consider hepatitis C vertical transmission rates. MD Magazine January 14, 2018.