To evaluate the prevalence and duration of viremia in relation to the features of liver disease, we investigated hepatitis B virus (HBV) DNA by the polymerase chain reaction in the serum of 39 children with chronic hepatitis B, after hepatitis B e antigen to antibody seroconversion. During a mean observation period of 8.2 +/- 3.8 years after seroconversion, all patients were asymptomatic; 36 had persistently normal alanine aminotransferase levels, and three had occasional mild alterations. Liver histology, checked in 21 patients, showed persistent hepatitis in nine, fibrosis in 10, and cirrhosis in two cases. HBV DNA was always undetectable by dot blot hybridization. Five children eventually cleared hepatitis B surface antigen, including one with cirrhosis who developed liver cancer at 19 years. HBV DNA was detected by polymerase chain reaction in 87% of children within 5 years of follow-up, in 58% of cases 6-10 years after seroconversion (p < 0.001), and in 50% of patients investigated later. Long-term viremia was found in two patients (40%) who cleared HBsAg, including the one who developed liver cancer. The chances of clearing viremia during follow-up were higher in children with acute hepatitis at the onset of illness (86%) than in those with asymptomatic onset (37%; p < 0.05). Our results show that low levels of HBV viremia, probably reflecting low levels of virus replication, persist for several years in children with chronic hepatitis B after hepatitis B e antigen to antibody seroconversion and remission of liver disease, even after the clearance of hepatitis B surface antigen. Persistent replication could support mild biochemical alterations and inflammatory liver lesions. It could allow late reactivation of liver disease and may play a role in the development of carcinoma.