Occult hepatitis B is defined by the presence of hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA in a serum or liver in the absence of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg). The prevalence and clinical correlates of occult hepatitis B remain incompletely defined. A cross-sectional study was performed to determine the prevalence of occult hepatitis B in a high-risk cohort composed of 188 injection drug users in Baltimore, Maryland. All individuals had chronic hepatitis C viral infections confirmed by RNA detection and liver biopsy. Serologic assays for HBsAg and core antibody (HBcAb) were performed. Serum HBV DNA was detected using the COBAS HBV AMPLICOR monitor assay (lower limit of detection, 200 HBV copies per milliliter) and a semi-nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay (lower limit of detection, 15 HBV copies per milliliter). Although almost all individuals (96%) were anti-HBC positive, only 8 of 188 (4%) were HBsAg positive. Occult hepatitis B was not identified using the COBAS assay, but was found in 81 of 180 (45%) of individuals using semi-nested PCR. Of the 8 HBsAg positive individuals, HBV DNA was found in 1/8 using the COBAS assay and 6/8 using the nested PCR assay. Overall, liver disease was mild, with a median serum alanine aminotransferase (ALT) of 38 IU/L, median activity grade of 3/18, and median fibrosis stage of 1/6. No association was found between the serum AST (aspartate aminotransferase), activity grade, or stage of liver disease and the presence of occult hepatitis B. Serum ALT levels were slightly higher in patients without occult hepatitis B (46 vs. 35 IU/L), and the median years since first injection drug use was somewhat longer in those without occult hepatitis B (24 vs. 20 years). In conclusion, although further research is needed to assess its clinical significance, there is a high prevalence of occult HBV infection in this cohort of HCV-infected injection drug users.
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