Expanding the epidemiological understanding of hepatitis C in South Africa: Perspectives from a patient cohort in a rural town

M W Sonderup, J Horak, H Smuts, J Saayman, L Boretti, J Black


Background. The epidemiology of hepatitis C virus (HCV) in the general population of South Africa (SA) is incompletely understood. A high HCV prevalence in key populations is known, but data are limited in terms of a broader understanding of transmission risks in our general population.

Objectives. To investigate a patient cohort with HCV infection clustering in a rural SA town, in order to identify possible HCV transmission risks, virological characteristics, phylogenetic data and treatment outcomes.

Methods. A cluster of patients with positive HCV serology, previously identified from laboratory records, were contacted by a local district hospital and offered confirmatory testing for HCV viraemia where needed. Those with confirmed HCV RNA were invited to a local hospital visit, where relevant demographic information was recorded, clinical assessment performed and a confidential questionnaire administered. HCV population-based sequencing was performed on HCV NS3/4A, NS5A and NS5B using polymerase chain reaction-specific or M13 universal primers, and sequences were aligned using BioEdit 7.2.5. Phylogenetic trees were constructed. Clinical assessments included liver fibrosis determination with FibroScan (cut-off ≥12.5 kPa = F4). Patients were offered treatment, and sustained virological response (SVR) was confirmed by undetectable HCV RNA at least 12 weeks after the end of treatment.

Results. Twenty-one patients, all from the same town, median (interquartile range (IQR)) age 64 (59 - 70) years, 57% female, were evaluated. Of these, 24% (n=5) were HIV co-infected, stable on antiretrovirals. The median (IQR) alanine aminotransferase level was 51 (31 - 89) U/L, with fibrosis distribution including 29% F1, 29% F2, 9% F3 and 33% F4 METAVIR fibrosis. Virologically, two genotypes were observed: 62% (n=13) genotype (GT) 1b and 38% (n=8) GT5a. No patient had ever used injecting drugs, 14% (n=3) had received blood products before 1992, and 9.5% (n=2) had undergone traditional healer-administered scarification. All (n=21) reported attendance at a single primary care clinic in the past, with most (n=20) recalling having received parenteral therapies at the clinic. Phylogenetic analysis of the HCV NS5A and NS5B regions confirmed GT1b and GT5a genotypes and formed two separate clusters within their respective genotypes, suggesting a common source for each genotype infection. Most patients received treatment with sofosbuvir/daclatasvir, 1 was treated with sofosbuvir/velpatasvir, and 1 was re-treated with sofosbuvir/velpatasvir/voxilaprevir. Per protocol SVR was 95%, with the non-SVR patient successfully re-treated.

Conclusions. Data from a rural town cluster of patients suggest parenteral medical exposure as the probable common source of hepatitis C transmission risk. The cohort was of older age with a significant number having advanced fibrosis or cirrhosis, suggesting HCV acquisition in the distant past. Using a simplified care approach, treatment outcomes were very good.

Authors' affiliations

M W Sonderup, Division of Hepatology, Department of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa

J Horak, Department of Medicine, Livingstone Hospital, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

H Smuts, Medical Virology, National Health Laboratory Service, Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa; Division of Medical Virology, Department of Pathology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

J Saayman, Department of Medicine, Livingstone Hospital, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

L Boretti, Department of Medicine, Livingstone Hospital, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

J Black, Department of Medicine, Livingstone Hospital, Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Department of Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, South Africa

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Hepatitis C; Epidemiology; Treatment

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2021;111(8):783-788. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v111i8.15477

Article History

Date submitted: 2021-08-02
Date published: 2021-08-02

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