Though it’s possible to live with an infectious chronic virus without ever putting other people at risk, mothers infected with chronic diseases have a high chance of passing it on to their children. Hepatitis C is one such virus that could potentially be passed on to fetuses and if it is, it can have severe consequences.

In the United States, Hepatitis C is most commonly contracted by sharing needles and equipment used to inject illegal drugs such as heroin. In developing countries, Hepatitis C can also be contracted by getting a shot with an infected needle. Hepatitis C affects the liver and it can cause liver failure, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.

In a new study conducted by a research team from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, it was found that infected mothers who pass on the virus to their unborn children may cause their infants to develop an immune system resistant strain of Hepatitis C. Between 15- 45% of people who contract Hep C have immune systems able to fight HVC, which causes the virus. However, the majority of people are unable to combat the virus and they develop chronic Hep C. Infants infected through their mothers have even less of a chance of fighting off the virus because the strain becomes practically good at replicating and avoiding immunity.

The research team believes that the strain becomes harder to fight off in infants because the HVC virus takes advantages of their developing immune systems. A large portion of the study involved following the progress of two women with Hep C over a period of five years. Both women had two children during this time and the research team managed to track the virus before, during, and after each pregnancy. Their findings revealed that there were changes in the HVC genomes in the women. Not only did the changes allow the virus to thrive, but they also ensured that if the virus was passed on to the infants it would be exceptionally good at replicating.

"We found that better replicating versions of the virus emerged during pregnancy, and these 'fit' viruses were passed to the babies." Dr. Jonathan R. Honegger says. "The findings actually provide unique insight into the impact of pregnancy on the mothers' control of viral infections, and also a striking illustration of this virus' ability to adapt to changing environmental pressures."

Researchers are currently following a larger group of pregnant women with HCV, and they hope to learn more about how viral mutations affect the way the body controls hepatitis C in pregnant women and infants.

Source: Nationwide Children's Hospital (2013, October 28). Pregnant women with hepatitis C may pass heartier viral strain to newborns. ScienceDaily.