BACKGROUND: The epidemiological and molecular characteristics of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection in the general population have been poorly investigated in Africa. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence, genotype distribution and epidemic history of HCV in the Gabonese general population.
METHODS/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: A total of 4042 sera collected from adults in 220 villages in all nine administrative areas of the country were screened for antibodies to HCV. HCV NS5B region sequencing was performed for molecular characterization and population genetic analyses. Of 4042 tested sera, 455 (11.2%) were positive. The seroprevalence of HCV varied significantly by administrative area, with the highest rate in Ogooue´-Lolo province (20.4%) and the lowest in Ogooue´ - Maritine province (3.7%). History of parenteral injections, past hospital admission and age over 55 years were independent
risk factors for HCV infection (p,0.0001). Phylogenetic analyses showed that 91.9% of the strains were genotype 4 (HCV-4), 5.7% genotype 1 and 2.2% genotype 2. HCV-4 strains were highly heterogeneous, with more than eight subtypes; subtype 4e predominated (57.3%). Coalescence analyses indicated that subtype 4e was the oldest, with an estimated most recent common ancestor of 1702 [95% CI, 1418–1884]. The epidemic profile indicated that it spread exponentially during the first
part of the 20th century, probably by iatrogenic transmission.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: These results confirm the endemicity of HCV subtype 4e in Gabon and show that its spread is
due to a cohort effect, with previous, possibly iatrogenic events. More extensive epidemiological studies are needed to better characterize the route of transmission and the dissemination of HCV in Gabon.