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World J Surg Oncol. 2005 May 20;3:27.

Viral hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma.

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Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, University Hospital, Antwerp, Belgium.



Hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) is one of the most common malignant tumors in the world. The incidence of HCC varies considerably with the geographic area because of differences in the major causative factors. Chronic hepatitis B and C, mostly in the cirrhotic stage, are responsible for the great majority of cases of HCC worldwide. The geographic areas at the highest risk are South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, here hepatitis B is highly endemic and is the main cause of HCC. In areas with an intermediate rate of HCC such as Southern Europe and Japan, hepatitis C is the predominant cause, whereas in low rate areas such as Northern Europe and the USA, HCC is often related to other factors as alcoholic liver disease. There is a rising incidence in HCC in developed countries during the last two decades, due to the increasing rate of hepatitis C infection and improvement of the clinical management of cirrhosis.


This article reviews the literature on hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma. The Medline search was carried out using these key words and articles were selected on epidemiology, risk factors, screening, and prevention of hepatocellular carcinoma.


Screening of patients with advanced chronic hepatitis B and C with hepatic ultrasound and determination of serum alfa-fetoprotein may improve the detection of HCC, but further studies are needed whether screening improves clinical outcome. Hepatitis B and C viruses (HBV/HCV) can be implicated in the development of HCC in an indirect way, through induction of chronic inflammation, or directly by means of viral proteins or, in the case of HBV, by creation of mutations by integration into the genome of the hepatocyte.


The most effective tool to prevent HCC is avoidance of the risk factors such as viral infection. For HBV, a very effective vaccine is available. Preliminary data from Taiwan indicate a protective effect of universal vaccination on the development of HCC. Vaccination against HBV should therefore be a health priority. In patients with chronic hepatitis B or C, interferon-alfa treatment in a noncirrhotic stage is protective for HCC development in responders, probably by prevention of cirrhosis development. When cirrhosis is already present, the protective effect is less clear. For cirrhosis due to hepatitis B, a protective effect was demonstrated in Oriental, but not in European patients. For cirrhosis due to hepatitis C, interferon-alfa treatment showed to be protective in some studies, especially in Japan with a high incidence of HCC in untreated patients. Virological, but also merely biochemical response, seems to be associated with a lower risk of development of HCC. As most studies are not randomized controlled trials, no definitive conclusions on the long-term effects of interferon-alfa in HBV or HCV cirrhosis can be established. Especially in hepatitis C, prospective studies should be performed using the more potent reference treatments for cirrhotics, namely the combination of peginterferon and ribavirin.

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