To determine the frequency of antibodies to hepatitis C virus in asymptomatic patients with HBsAg-negative chronic active hepatitis, sera from 30 consecutive patients with few or no symptoms of liver disease were tested by an enzyme immunoassay. The reactivity of antibodies detected by enzyme immunoassay against hepatitis C virus encoded antigens was determined by recombinant immunoblot assay. Antibodies were detected in 11 of the 30 patients (37%) and eight of the seropositive sera (73%) were reactive by recombinant immunoblot assay. Nonreactive patients were weakly positive by enzyme immunoassay (sample/cutoff ratio, ≤1.9) in contrast to reactive patients (sample/cutoff ratio, ≥ 6.3). The prevalence of immunoserologic markers was similar in patients with and without antibodies (78 vs. 87%) but high titers (≥ 1:160) were more common in seronegative patients (53 vs. 11%). Additionally, seronegative patients had smooth muscle antibodies (83 vs. 25%, p < 0.05) and concurrent extrahepatic immunologic diseases (37 vs. 9%) more commonly than seropositive counterparts. We conclude that asymptomatic patients with HBsAg-negative chronic active hepatitis frequently have antibodies to hepatitis C virus. These antibodies commonly react to specific viral antigens, especially if the enzyme immunoassay is strongly positive. Seropositive patients infrequently have concurrent immunologic disorders or smooth muscle antibodies. Immunoserologic markers lack diagnostic specificity except in high titer.
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