The tests, called assays, for detection of hepatitis B virus infection involve serum or blood tests that detect either viral antigens (proteins produced by the virus) or antibodies produced by the host. Interpretation of these assays is complex.
The hepatitis B surface antigen (''HBsAg'') is most frequently used to screen for the presence of this infection. It is the first detectable viral antigen to appear during infection. However, early in an infection, this antigen may not be present and it may be undetectable later in the infection as it is being cleared by the host. The infectious virion contains an inner "core particle" enclosing viral genome. The icosahedral core particle is made of 180 or 240 copies of core protein, alternatively known as hepatitis B core antigen, or ''HBcAg''. During this 'window' in which the host remains infected but is successfully clearing the virus, IgM antibodies to the hepatitis B core antigen (''anti-HBc IgM'') may be the only serological evidence of disease.
Shortly after the appearance of the HBsAg, another antigen named as the hepatitis B e antigen (''HBeAg'') will appear. Traditionally, the presence of HBeAg in a host's serum is associated with much higher rates of viral replication and enhanced infectivity; however, variants of the hepatitis B virus do not produce the 'e' antigen, so this rule does not always hold true. During the natural course of an infection, the HBeAg may be cleared, and antibodies to the 'e' antigen (''anti-HBe'') will arise immediately afterwards. This conversion is usually associated with a dramatic decline in viral replication.
If the host is able to clear the infection, eventually the HBsAg will become undetectable and will be followed by IgG antibodies to the hepatitis B surface antigen and core antigen, (''anti-HBs'' and ''anti HBc IgG''). Carriers of the virus may have chronic hepatitis B, which would be reflected by elevated serum alanine aminotransferase levels and inflammation of the liver, as revealed by biopsy. Carriers who have seroconverted to HBeAg negative status, particularly those who acquired the infection as adults, have very little viral multiplication and hence may be at little risk of long-term complications or of transmitting infection to others.
PCR tests have been developed to detect and measure the amount of HBV DNA, called the viral load, in clinical specimens. These tests are used to assess a person's infection status and to monitor treatment. Individuals with high viral loads, characteristically have ground glass hepatocytes on biopsy.
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