Hepatitis C, or hep C, is a type of viral infection of the liver caused by the hepatitis C virus (aka, HCV). While some cases heal on their own, more than half of hep C cases can become chronic.
When left untreated, hep C can lead to liver damage, scarring of the liver (aka cirrhosis), or even liver cancer — pretty scary things, TBH.
If you’re a parent, or about to be one, with a recent hep C diagnosis, you might be wondering if there’s a chance of passing it to your children.
Here’s what you need to know.
The short answer is: It’s rare. But children and fetuses can get hep C, and this transmission usually occurs during childbirth. If the birthing parent has hep C, there is a 1 in 20 chance that the baby will get hep C at birth.
Real talk: Doctors and researchers currently aren’t exactly sure when you can pass on hep C to your baby.
Plus, while doctors know you can transmit hep C to infants during childbirth, they haven’t yet figured out how to prevent or lower the chance of transmission to a baby if the pregnant parent has hep C.
C-section deliveries, for example, don’t seem to lower the chance of the baby developing a viral infection. And while researchers are pretty confident that the odds that the HCV passes through the placenta are pretty low — the chances of disease transmission during birth go up if you have a really high viral load, have HIV, or use intravenous drugs.
You can pass on hep C by direct exposure to the blood of someone who has hep C. That’s why the most common way to get or transmit hep C is by sharing needles or other equipment to prep or inject drugs.
You can also get hep C if you accidentally get a needle prick, a tattoo or piercing with unsterilized tools, share personal care items like razors or toothbrushes, and have sex without a condom or other barrier method.
Back in the day, and by that, we mean before 1992, you could pass on hep C to others through organ transplants and blood transfusions. Now, that’s much less of a risk because of routine testing.
Hep C is diagnosed in children the same way it’s diagnosed in adults.
But even if the birthing parent is aware of their hep C infection during their pregnancy, experts do not recommend testing a child until they are at least 18 months old.
The reason? Antibodies can pass from the birthing parent to the child until around 18 months. Since initial testing for hep C is an HCV antibody test, testing before 18 months could affect results.
If you follow the standard protocol, your child’s pediatrician can begin by performing a physical exam, taking a medical history, and screening with an HCV antibody test. If it’s positive, the doctor can follow up with an HCV viral test, such as the HCV-PCR test, to determine if the child has hep C.
If a birthing parent is aware of their hep C infection during pregnancy and eagerly wants to know their child’s status, they can talk with a doctor about ordering an HCV viral test when the child is 3 months old at the earliest. The reason is that there can be high rates of temporarily positive tests in children under 3 months old.
Yes, hep C is treatable in kids.
In about 40 percent of cases, your baby’s immune system will clear the HCV on its own. If this happens, it generally occurs before 2 years old.
So, for the first few years of life, treatment usually only involves consistent monitoring by a pediatric hepatologist, who will monitor your baby’s liver function and growth.
They’ll likely also recommend vaccinations against hep A and B because the viruses could increase your kid’s chances of liver damage.
If your baby doesn’t clear the HCV on their own by 3 years old — or they start showing symptoms of liver disease — they’ll begin treatment with direct-acting antiviral therapy.
If treatment fails, they can develop complications and may even become eligible for a liver transplant.
Usually, kids do really well with treatment.
In fact, 90 percent to 95 percent of kids with genotype 1 hep C will have no detectable viral load in their blood after 12 weeks of treatment. Kids can also spontaneously clear HCV until their seventh birthdays.
Even if children develop chronic hep C, only around 20 percent have any or severe scarring of the liver as early as their eighth birthdays.
Children with hep C can live functional, healthy, and active lives, especially if they avoid drinking alcohol. That said, there hasn’t been a ton of research into the long-term effects of hep C in kids.
Hep C is a viral infection that you can pass from person to person via contact with blood from someone who has hep C. This means that you can get it by sharing needles, personal care items, or by having sex without a condom or other barrier method.
It also means you can transmit it to your baby if you get it while you’re pregnant, either in utero or during childbirth.
But kids sometimes clear HCV on their own, even if they’re born with it. There are also treatments that may help kids recover.