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It is unknown whether hepatitis C virus (HCV)-specific cellular immune responses can develop in seronegative sexual partners of chronically HCV-infected patients and whether they have occult infection. Thirty-one heterosexual partners of patients with chronic HCV were studied, fifteen of them with HCV transmission risks. Ten healthy individuals and 17 anti-HCV seropositive patients, without viremia, were used as controls. Virus-specific CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell responses were measured by flow cytometry against six HCV peptides, situated within the nonstructural (NS) proteins NS3, NS4 and NS5, through intracellular detection of gamma interferon (IFN-γ) or interleukin 4 (IL-4) production and CD69 expression. Sexual partners had a higher production of IFN-γ and IL-4 by CD4+ cells against NS3-p124 (P = 0.003), NS5b-p257 (P = 0.005) and NS5b-p294 (P = 0.012), and CD8+ cells against NS3-p124 (P = 0.002), NS4b-p177 (P = 0.001) and NS3-p294 (P = 0.004) as compared with healthy controls. We observed elevated IFN-γ production by CD4+ T cells against NS5b-p257 (P = 0.042) and NS5b-p294 (P = 0.009) in the sexual partners with HCV transmission risks (sexual, professional and familial altogether) than in those without risks. RNA was extracted from peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC), and detection of HCV-RNA positive and replicative (negative) strands was performed by strand-specific real-time PCR. In four sexual partners, the presence of positive and negative HCV- RNA strands in PBMC was confirmed. Hence, we found an HCV-specific cellular immune response as well as occult HCV infection in seronegative and aviremic sexual partners of chronically HCV-infected patients.