Theory Links Hepatitis C to Polio Syringes in Italy
Thu April 10, 2003 02:41 PM ET
By Rossella LorenziFLORENCE, Italy (Reuters Health) - Poorly cleaned glass
syringes used to administer the polio vaccine in the 1950s and 60s could have
spread the hepatitis C virus from person to person in southern Italy,
researches from Italy's National Cancer Institute suggested this week.The
accidental spread of the virus might explain why southern Italy has a
particularly high rate of the chronic liver disease, suggest Dr. Maurizio
Montella and colleagues.In the mid 1950s and 1960s, an injected vaccine known
as the Salk vaccine was used to protect against the crippling disease polio.
In southern Italy, reusable glass syringes were used to deliver the vaccine
until the new oral version, known as the Sabin vaccine, was introduced in
1965. The authors' theory is that the syringes, if not properly sterilized,
may have spread the hepatitis C virus.Montella told Reuters Health Wednesday
there was already some indirect evidence linking the glass syringes used for
the older vaccine to high hepatitis C rates."The phenomenon is circumscribed
to certain areas -- where glass syringes were widely used, there is an
increase of hepatitis C cases," he said.To look closer at the link, he and
others drew on a previous investigation that included a sample of 1,908
people aged 30 to 60 years.The subjects were originally enrolled as healthy
"controls" in another study. They were known not to have used intravenous
drugs or to have had blood transfusions, both of which can spread the
disease.Tests showed that seven percent of men and five percent of women aged
40 to 49 years had antibodies to hepatitis C, suggesting infection with the
virus. People born between the 1940s and early 1960s were nearly three times
as likely as younger subjects to have the virus, they reported in this
month's Journal of Medical Virology.Overall, about six percent of older
adults had been infected with the virus compared with about two percent of
those aged 30 to 39.The prevalence of hepatitis C is about 1.8 percent in the
U.S. and ranges from 0.5 percent to nine percent in Western Europe."This is
indisputable data, and it is linked to the years when the Salk polio
vaccination was administered," Montella said. "The high rate of HCV is most
likely attributable to a misuse and reuse of needles and glass syringes being
inadequately sterilized."Because chronic hepatitis C infections may not cause
any symptoms, "it will be useful to inform the population of southern Italy
about the implication to their future health," the authors write in the
article.About four million people in the United States and 150 million
worldwide have hepatitis C, an infection of the liver that is spread by
contact with blood and other body fluids.About 20 percent of people infected
with the virus will develop severe and potentially fatal liver damage, or
cirrhosis, which in turn increases a person's risk of liver cancer.SOURCE:
Journal of Medical Virology 2003;70:49-50.