The Utah Department of Health is recommending all pregnant women be tested for hepatitis B virus to identify those who may infect their unborn infants.

Utah's incidence of infection of hepatitis B virus is lower than the national average. In 1986, about eight Utahns per 100,000 population had hepatitis B, compared to about 10 per 100,000 nationally, said state epidemiologist Craig Nichols.But health officials say Utah's large population of young people may indicate a large number of childbearing age women are at risk.

Nichols explained that infants exposed to hepatitis in the womb have a 70 to 90 percent chance of contracting the disease, and 90 percent of those infected will become chronic carriers.

About one-fourth of the children that develop into carriers will die of a rare form of liver cancer or cirrhosis of the liver, he said, although prompt treatment is about 90 percent effective.

The health specialist believes that universal screening could detect about 70 infected women per year, and from 13 to 38 children could be prevented from becoming carriers.

Fast treatment is essential, epidemiologist David Thurman said, and infected infants should be vaccinated within 24 hours of birth. Hepatitis B is spread through blood contact and products and sexual contact, he said.

The health department recommendations include offering the test at an early prenatal visit. Women who show "high-risk behavior such as intravenous drug use," should have a second test late in the pregnancy.

If the woman has not been tested before delivery, she should be tested as part of the hospital admission, Nichols said.