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Assessment of chronic hepatitis B: the importance of hepatitis B virus DNA testing

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Background:  Chronic hepatitis B (CHB) has an estimated prevalence of 90 000 to 160 000 in Australia. Cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma are important complications of CHB and appropriate evaluation of hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg)‐positive individuals is vital to identify treatment candidates.

Methods:  A review of the database of a tertiary hospital was performed and 348 HBsAg‐positive individuals with baseline demographic, virological, serological and biochemical variables were identified and evaluated cross‐sectionally. A small subgroup of hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg)‐negative patients with normal alanine aminotransferase (ALT) at baseline were identified and followed longitudinally.

Results:  175/348 (50%) of patients were in the HBeAg‐negative, chronic hepatitis phase of disease, 22% in the HBeAg‐positive immune clearance and 6% in the immune tolerant phases. HBeAg‐negative patients were older and more likely to be male than HBeAg‐positive patients. The correlation between hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA and ALT levels was examined. ALT and HBV DNA levels showed no correlation in HBeAg‐positive CHB and only a weak correlation in HBeAg‐negative patients. Furthermore, 35% of HBeAg‐negative patients with detectable HBV DNA had a normal ALT. Conversely 38% of HBeAg‐negative patients with no detectable HBV DNA had an elevated ALT. A persistently normal ALT over 24 months was seen in five of nine HBeAg‐negative patients with normal initial ALT and detectable HBV DNA.

Conclusion:  Appropriate evaluation of HBeAg‐negative CHB must include HBV DNA because the ALT is not a reliable guide to underlying viral replication.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Gastroenterology, St Vincent's Hospital 2: Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Publication date: February 1, 2012

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