In contrast to the belief that nothing can be done to prevent mothers from passing on the hepatitis C virus (HCV) to their babies, UK researchers have found that delivering at-risk babies by cesarean section may protect the infants from the virus.
Among 441 HCV-infected mothers and their children, no child delivered by elective C-section contracted the virus, compared with more than 7% of those delivered vaginally or by emergency C-section. This confirms that the highest risk of mother-to-child transmission is during delivery, the researchers explain. Moreover, it suggests that a planned C-section might protect newborns, the team reports in a recent issue of The Lancet.
Hepatitis C infects the liver, often leading to scarring, liver failure or cancer. The virus is transmitted through contact with infected blood, through sex, or from mother-to-child. About 5% of babies born to infected mothers become infected themselves, and doctors currently have no way of preventing transmission.
However, if further research proves C-sections can prevent transmission, that would bolster the case for screening pregnant women for HCV, lead author Dr. Diana M. Gibb of the Institute of Child Health in London, UK, told Reuters Health. Testing is not widely performed because there has been no known way of preventing transmission anyway, she explained.
Gibb’s team found an overall transmission rate of nearly 7%, including 8% of babies born vaginally and 6% of those born via emergency C-section. Unlike women who elected to have C-sections, those who had an emergency procedure experienced rupture of the membranes, thus explaining their higher transmission rate.
Gibb noted that C-sections have also been found to cut the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission.
SOURCE: The Lancet 2000;356:904-907