The role of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in fulminant hepatic failure is controversial. The frequency of serum HCV RNA positivity in previously reported patients with fulminant hepatic failure (FHF) of indeterminate cause ranged from 0 to 12% in the United States and Europe and from 43% to 59% in Asia. We assessed serum HCV RNA using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and oligoprimers from the 5′UTR of the HCV genome in 26 consecutive patients with FHF. Another laboratory independently performed PCR on 21 of the serum samples using different oligoprimers from the 5′UTR and NS3 region of the HCV genome. Serum HCV RNA was detected in two of seven (28%) patients with hepatitis B, 9 of 15 (60%) with an indeterminate cause, and in none with hepatitis A (n = 2) or drug-induced hepatotoxicity (n = 2). HCV RNA PCR results were concordant between both laboratories in 17 of 21 (81%) of samples. In patients with an indeterminate cause, HCV RNA positivity was significantly associated with the transmission risk factor of low socioeconomic status and Hispanic ethnicity. Eighteen patients underwent liver transplantation (LT) and 15 (83%) survived. Among patients with FHF of indeterminate cause, recurrent or acquired HCV infection after transplantation occurred in three of five (60%) and one of four (25%) patients, respectively. Three of four (75%) patients with hepatitis C virus infection post-LT also developed histologic hepatitis. HCV appears to be the causative agent of a substantial number of cases of FHF classified as indeterminate in the Los Angeles area. Differences in patient populations or risk factors may explain the discordant incidences of HCV infection in FHF observed among different programs.
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