Survey shows more than 800,000 people in US have hepatitis B, half of them Asian

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Although nearly 70 million people in the US have been vaccinated against hepatitis B virus (HBV), there are still 847,000 people with evidence of infection, about 400,000 of whom are Asian, according to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) results published in the February edition of Hepatology.

Hepatitis B virus is transmitted via blood, sexual contact and mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy or delivery. HBV is endemic in parts of East Asia and Africa, and people who come from these regions have higher rates of infection. About 90% of people infected as adults clear the virus naturally, but most of those infected as infants develop chronic infection.

An effective HBV vaccine became available in the early 1980s and is now part of the routine childhood immunisation series in many countries. Hepatitis B can be treated with antivirals or interferon, but these usually do not lead to a cure. Over years or decades, hepatitis B can cause serious liver disease including cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.


hepatitis B virus (HBV)

The hepatitis B virus can be spread through sexual contact, sharing of contaminated needles and syringes, needlestick injuries and during childbirth. Hepatitis B infection may be either short-lived and rapidly cleared in less than six months by the immune system (acute infection) or lifelong (chronic). The infection can lead to serious illnesses such as cirrhosis and liver cancer. A vaccine is available to prevent the infection.

acute infection

The very first few weeks of infection, until the body has created antibodies against the infection. During acute HIV infection, HIV is highly infectious because the virus is multiplying at a very rapid rate. The symptoms of acute HIV infection can include fever, rash, chills, headache, fatigue, nausea, diarrhoea, sore throat, night sweats, appetite loss, mouth ulcers, swollen lymph nodes, muscle and joint aches – all of them symptoms of an acute inflammation (immune reaction).


Severe fibrosis, or scarring of organs. The structure of the organs is altered, and their function diminished. The term cirrhosis is often used in relation to the liver. 


A drug that acts against a virus or viruses.


To eliminate a disease or a condition in an individual, or to fully restore health. A cure for HIV infection is one of the ultimate long-term goals of research today. It refers to a strategy or strategies that would eliminate HIV from a person’s body, or permanently control the virus and render it unable to cause disease. A ‘sterilising’ cure would completely eliminate the virus. A ‘functional’ cure would suppress HIV viral load, keeping it below the level of detection without the use of ART. The virus would not be eliminated from the body but would be effectively controlled and prevented from causing any illness. 

Henry Roberts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Division of Viral Hepatitis and colleagues analysed hepatitis B prevalence data from NHANES, an ongoing study assessing the health of adults and children in the US. As a household survey, NHANES does not include homeless people, prisoners, active duty military personnel or people living in long-term care facilities – groups with higher than average HBV infection rates.

Chronic hepatitis B prevalence in the US is affected by the shrinking number of young people who are susceptible to infection as vaccination coverage rises. It is estimated that about 25% of the overall US population – but 90% of young children – have vaccine-induced immunity, the authors noted as background. However, this is offset by people immigrating from countries where the virus is endemic. An estimated 3.9 million foreign-born people from these countries currently reside in the US, and they may account for as many as 70% of all hepatitis B cases.

Roberts and his team analysed hepatitis B prevalence estimates among non-institutionalised people aged 6 years and older during three NHANES study periods: 1988-1994 (21,260 people), 1999-2008 (29,828 people) and 2007-2012 (22,358 people). Because their numbers in the population are small, the survey 'over-sampled' Asian people starting in 2011-2012.

NHANES participants completed interviews, underwent medical examinations and provided blood samples for testing. Prevalence was determined by serological testing looking at:

  • Hepatitis B surface antigen (HBsAg), indicative of chronic infection (or, more rarely, acute infection)
  • Antibodies to hepatitis B core antigen (anti-HBc), indicating having ever been infected with HBV
  • Antibodies to hepatitis B surface antigen (anti-HBs) without anti-HBc, indicating immunity due to vaccination.

The prevalence of positive anti-HBc, indicating past or present HBV infection, declined steadily over time, from 5.3% during 1988-1994 to 4.8% during 1999-2006 to 3.9% during 2007-2012. Based on these unadjusted prevalence estimates, 12.1 million, 12.5 million and 10.8 million non-institutionalised US residents had ever been infected with HBV during the three time periods.

Looking at chronic HBV infection, the overall prevalence has remained fairly steady over time, with an adjusted prevalence of 0.3% since 1999. Most chronic infections were seen in the 20-49 and 50 and older age groups. However, among people younger than 20 years – those most likely to have been vaccinated – chronic HBV prevalence declined significantly, from 0.2% during 1988-1994 to 0.03% during 2007-2012.

The prevalence of chronic HBV infection among black US residents was 2- to 3-fold greater than that of the overall population. Chronic hepatitis B prevalence among Asian people in the US was 3.1% during 2011-2012, or 10-fold greater than the overall population.

Estimating the number of chronically infected people from the HBV prevalence in each racial/ethnic group led the researchers to conclude that there were 847,000 people with chronic hepatitis B in 2011-2012 (range 565,000-1,130,000). Approximately 400,000 of these – or nearly half – were Asian.

Adjusted prevalence of vaccine-induced immunity increased 16% overall, from 21.7% during 1999-2006 to 25.1% during 2007-2012. Based on these estimates, the number of people protected by vaccination rose from 57.8 to 68.5 million. Among children and young adults (ages 6-19), however, the adjusted prevalence of vaccine-induced immunity fell somewhat, from 56.8% in during 1999-2006 to 44.4% during 2007-2012.

"Despite increasing immune protection in young persons vaccinated in infancy, an analysis of chronic hepatitis B prevalence in racial and ethnic populations indicates that during 2011-2012, there were 847,000 HBV infections (which included about 400,000 non-Hispanic Asians) in the non-institutionalized US population," the study authors concluded.

"The findings in this study provide further evidence that migration of HBV-infected persons from HBV endemic countries has largely contributed to prevalence rates remaining constant since 1999," they noted. "Recommendations, released by the Institute of Medicine in 2010, advised the CDC and other federal agencies to expand screening and vaccination hepatitis programs that target foreign-born populations."


Roberts H et al. Prevalence of chronic hepatitis B virus (HBV) infection in U.S. households: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 1988-2012. Hepatology 63(2):388-397, February 2016.