This study reports the prevalence of antibodies to hepatitis B virus (HBV) and C virus (HCV). and the frequency of potential exposure to these viruses among patients and staff in six long-stay wards of a hospital caring for mentally handicapped adults from the Mersey region. A retrospective survey of risk behaviour among 134 patients and questionnaire survey of 75 nursing staff was performed. Serum samples from both groups were tested for HBV markers and patient sera for antibodies to HCV by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). None of the 102 patients tested had antibodies against HCV. although 17 had detectable antibody to HBV core (anti-HBc). Seven out of the 17 were positive for HBV surface antigen. None was positive for IgM antibody to HBV core. Only 1 out of 61 staff had anti-HBc and none was positive for surface antigen. Twenty-nine of 75 (39%) staff reported bites sufficient to break the skin and 52 (69%) significant other injuries from patients; 25 (31%) of staff had not received HBV vaccination. None of the patients had received HBV vaccine.
We conclude that HCV does not appear to be a major hazard in this closed community but the prevalence of HBV markers indicating past exposure among patients is high, vaccine uptake is incomplete and incidents which may allow viral transmission are frequent.