Occult hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection has been reported in 30% to 50% of patients with acute liver failure (ALF) in small case series. The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of occult HBV infection in a large series of ALF patients in the United States and the prevalence of precore and core promoter variants in patients with ALF caused by hepatitis B. Sera from patients in the US ALF study and liver, when available, were tested using nested polymerase chain reaction (PCR) with primers in the HBV S and precore regions. PCR-positive samples were sequenced. Sera and/or liver from 139 patients (39 males, 100 females; mean age, 42 years) enrolled between January 1998 and December 1999 were studied. Twelve patients were diagnosed with hepatitis B, 1 with hepatitis B+C+D coinfection, and 22 had indeterminate etiology. HBV DNA was detected in the sera of 9 (6%) patients; all 9 had ALF caused by hepatitis B. HBV genotypes A, B, C, and D were present in 4, 3, 1, and 1 patients, respectively. Seven of these 9 patients had precore and/or core promoter variants. Liver from 19 patients were examined. HBV DNA was detected in the liver of 3 patients with ALF caused by hepatitis B, but in none of the remaining 16 patients with non-B ALF. Contrary to earlier reports, occult HBV infection was not present in this large series of ALF patients in the United States. HBV precore and/or core promoter variants were common among US patients with ALF caused by hepatitis B.
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