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Column originally published Jan 16, 2007
Column last revised/updated on Aug 7, 2018

Uncommon For Mothers To Pass Hepatitis C Infection To Newborn Babies

Question: My partner was infected with Hepatitis C when he was using intravenous drugs many years ago. He is still healthy and shows no sign of liver disease. I am now pregnant with our first child. I have heard that hepatitis can be passed through sex and from the mother to her baby. I am scared that our baby can get infected. I want to know whether there is anything that I can do to prevent this from happening.


Relax.  Your baby most likely will be completely healthy.  The chance that he/she will get infected with Hepatitis C is very low.  Let me explain to you in more detail here.

There are many kinds of hepatitis virus.  The one that causes the greatest concern is actually Hepatitis B virus.  Although their names are so similar, they are actually very different species.  Like Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B virus can spread easily through blood.  Anyone sharing needles, especially in IV drug abusers, have a high chance of getting infected by one or both of these viruses (as well as other viruses present in the blood, like HIV that causes AIDS).  Furthermore, both viruses can cause chronic liver disease, liver failure, as well as liver cancer.

However, their similarity stops there.  Hepatitis B virus can spread easily through sex, and infected mothers readily pass the virus to their babies before and during birth.

Although Hepatitis C virus is found in saliva and semen, its spread through sex has not been documented.  However, research has shown that a small percentage of those infected with Hepatitis C will pass the virus to their sexual partners.  The chance of infection increases over time.  However, this risk is much lower compared with Hepatitis B infection.

What is not known is whether these sexual partners get the infection through sex, or through things that might have been contaminated with blood, like razors and toothbrushes.

If a woman is infected with Hepatitis C virus, the chance of her baby picking up the infection is about 5 percent (for Hepatitis B, it is as high as 70-90%).  We still don’t know how the infection is passed from the mother to the baby.  Some of the infections probably occur during delivery, but a small number can happen before the baby is born, through the placenta.

Since you are sexually involved with your baby’s father who was infected with Hepatitis C, you should find out whether you have been infected with this virus.  It can be determined through blood tests.  If you are not infected, then there is no chance that you can pass on the infection to your baby.

You should be careful not to share some personal items with your partner.  Razors and toothbrushes are often contaminated with blood without any visual evidence.  Although transmission of Hepatitis C virus is infrequent through sex, the longer the exposure, the greater is the chance of infection.  Therefore, it may be advisable to reduce the chance by using barrier technique like condom until you are ready to have another baby.

If you have been infected with Hepatitis C already, there is nothing that you can do right now to prevent infecting your unborn baby. There is no evidence that Caesarian Section can prevent Hepatitis C infection in a newborn. If blood tests show that you have been infected with Hepatitis C virus, then your baby should be tested for Hepatitis C about a year after birth.

You should also consider breast feeding your baby after birth because the virus has not been shown to infect babies through breast milk.  However, if you have cracked nipples, or if there is bleeding from the nipples, you should temporarily stop breast feeding until the bleeding has stopped, or the cracked nipples have healed.  You need to express and discard the breast milk at that time.

Anyone infected with Hepatitis C needs to know that the infection can lead to chronic hepatitis and liver failure, as well as liver cancer.  There are  new anti-viral medications for Hepatitis C; they are very effective and have much less side effect than previous medications. Some provinces provide these new medications free of charge. After successful treatment, your partner will not be at risk for liver failure or liver cancer.

Other important precautions include avoiding alcohol as well as medications that can affect liver.  Those infected with Hepatitis C only should receive Hepatitis A and B vaccines to prevent them from getting infected with these two other serious hepatitis viruses.  If a person gets infected with more than one kind of hepatitis virus, the chance of severe liver disease is markedly increased.

I hope you have a better understanding of Hepatitis C infection.  You should get yourself tested; then relax and enjoy your pregnancy, because most likely your baby is going to be perfectly healthy.