OBJECTIVE: To identify and determine trends in the prevalence of hepatitis C virus (HCV) antibody in stored sera from 1971 to 1975 and to determine associations with HCV seropositivity, including markers for other hepatitis infections and possible routes of transmission. DESIGN: A retrospective cross-sectional study. PATIENTS AND SETTING: 1511 adults admitted to Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, Victoria, with a clinical and biochemical diagnosis of hepatitis between 1 January 1971 and 31 December 1975. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Prevalence over study period of hepatitis A virus antibody (anti-HAV) IgM, hepatitis B core antibody (anti-HBc), hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg) and hepatitis C virus antibody (anti-HCV) in stored sera; sociodemographic data and risk factors for blood-borne viruses documented in original medical records. RESULTS: Anti-HCV was detected in 17% of adults admitted with hepatitis from 1971 through 1975. Prevalence increased significantly over this period. Most cases were in young men who had a history of injecting drug use. HCV seropositivity was also significantly associated with markers for hepatitis B infection. CONCLUSIONS: Given the 20-30-year period between infection with hepatitis and the development of liver disease, our findings predict significant liver-related morbidity in Australia in the next decade. The increase in prevalence over the five years studied suggests rapid spread of HCV through susceptible populations, principally injecting drug users.