Background : The epidemiology and clinical significance of occult hepatitis B virus infection (serum hepatitis B surface antigen-negative patients with detectable hepatitis B virus viraemia in serum) remains controversial with only limited information about its prevalence in patients on long-term dialysis.

Aim : To address the epidemiology of occult HBV infection in a large cohort of dialysis patients.

Methods : We screened a large cohort (n = 585) of Italian chronic dialysis patients; from this population, a group of hepatitis B virus surface antigen seronegative patients (n = 213) was tested by Amplicor hepatitis B virus Monitor Test to detect hepatitis B virus viraemia (hepatitis B virus-DNA) in serum.

Results : Occult hepatitis B virus infection was absent (zero of 213 = 0%). Persistent hepatitis B virus surface antigen carriage was less frequent than anti-hepatitis B virus core antibody (anti-hepatitis B core antigen) seropositive status in this study group [1.88% (11 of 585) vs. 36% (216 of 585), P = 0.0001]. No dialysis patients seropositive for anti-hepatitis B core antibody in serum (zero of 123 = 0%) had detectable hepatitis B virus-DNA by polymerase chain reaction technology. No significant association between abnormal biochemical liver tests and serum anti-hepatitis B core antibody was noted in our population. Nominal logistic regression analysis demonstrated an independent and significant relationship between anti-HCV antibody and anti-hepatitis B virus core antibody in serum (Wald chi-square 16.06, P = 0.0001). The rate of seropositive patients for anti-hepatitis B virus core antibody was higher among study patients than controls with normal renal function [36.9% (216 of 585) vs. 21.4% (59 of 275), P = 0.0001]; this difference partially persisted after correction for demographic parameters, and viral markers.

Conclusion : In conclusion, occult hepatitis B virus was absent in our study group. Anti-hepatitis B core antibody was significantly related to presence of anti-HCV antibody supporting shared modes of transmission. Clinical studies based on molecular biology techniques provided with higher sensitivity are planned.