Background/aims: Chronic hepatitis B virus infection can lead to cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, particularly in men over 40 years of age and in areas where childhood-onset infection is common. The sequence of events from paediatric infection to severe disease in adults is only partially known. The aim of this study was to evaluate the evolution of chronic hepatitis B acquired in childhood during 20 years of follow-up.
Patients: One hundred and eighty-five consecutive, otherwise healthy, Caucasian children were enrolled in Padua (Italy) and in Madrid (Spain) between 1975 and 1985, and followed for an average period of 13 years; 168 were hepatitis B e antigen (HBeAg) positive and five had cirrhosis.
Results: Thirty patients received steroids or levamisole and 21 interferon, but treatment did not significantly influence HBeAg clearance. Overall, two (1.1%) children, with initial cirrhosis, developed hepatocellular carcinoma and the other three (1.6%) cirrhotic patients became asymptomatic carriers of infection after anti-HBe seroconversion and biochemical remission; 14 (7.5%) children maintained HBeAg positive hepatitis; 155 (83.8%) became asymptomatic carriers of infection after anti-HBe seroconversion and biochemical remission; six (3.2%) experienced reactivation of liver disease and viral replication after remission and five (2.7%) maintained biochemical features of liver damage after HBeAg clearance. Only 6% cleared hepatitis B surface antigen.
Conclusions: Even considering the bias of treatment, the large majority of Caucasian children with chronic hepatitis B became asymptomatic carriers of infection with normal alanine amino-transferase during the first 20 years of observation. Cirrhosis is an early, rare complication, and a risk factor for hepatocellular carcinoma. A subgroup of patients who experienced reactivation or maintained liver damage after HBeAg clearance seems to be at greater risk for disease progression during adult life.