The kinetics of the cell mediated immune response by ducks acutely and chronically infected with, or immune to infection by duck hepatitis B virus (DHBV) was determined. This was measured by an antigen specific blastogenesis assay to duck hepatitis B surface antigen (DHBsAg) and duck hepatitis B core antigen (DHBcAg) using peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC). The three outcomes of acute infection by DHBV were either clearance from both serum and liver, clearance from serum but not liver, or the development of persistent viraemia. Acutely infected ducks that failed to clear the infection also failed to develop a significant cellular immune response to both antigens. Ducks with chronic infection acquired as neonates or as the result of the failure to clear acute infection had an increasing cellular immune response over time. Two groups of immune ducks were examined. These were either ducks that had become immune following infection or that had been vaccinated. Both groups of ducks demonstrated significant cellular responses following challenge with DHBV irrespective of the level of their responses before challenge. However, there was a reduction in the response of their PBMC over a 4-week-period postchallenge. The range of cellular immune responses to DHBV antigens observed in this study has a number of counterparts in hepatitis B infection of humans. Coupled with the defined clinical outcomes that can be established in the duck/DHBV model, further study of the cellular immune response to DHBV is warranted. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.