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Helicobacter pylori is present worldwide but few large population studies exist on the epidemiology of the infection. A random cross sectional study was performed of H pylori infection in the adult population of San Marino, a European country with high gastric cancer rate, to assess its prevalence and to evaluate its relations with gastrointestinal disease. In 2237 subjects (77% of the initial sample) H pylori IgG antibodies were detected with enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and immunoblotting. A questionnaire including questions about occupation, place of birth, and smoking was given to all subjects. Dyspepsia, peptic ulcer, and gastric cancer in the subjects, relatives, and partners as well as use of drug, dental treatment/prostheses, and gastrointestinal endoscopies, were evaluated by multivariate analysis. H pylori prevalence was of 51%, increased with age from 23% (20-29 years) to 68% (> or = 70 years), and was higher among manual workers. H pylori was independently associated with ulcer (OR = 1.63, 95% confidence intervals (CI) = 1.16 to 2.27), H2 antagonists (OR = 1.94, 95% CI = 1.21 to 3.10), and benzodiazepines (OR = 1.57, 95% CI = 1.02 to 2.42), dental prostheses (OR = 1.25, 95% CI = 1.05 to 1.49), gastroscopy in the past five years (OR = 1.50, 95% CI = 1.05 to 2.14), peptic ulcer in siblings (OR = 1.52, 95% CI = 1.09 to 2.12), gastric cancer in father (OR = 1.61, 95% CI = 1.02 to 2.52). The association of seropositivity with history of ulcer, gastric cancer in family, gastroscopy, and H2 antagonists suggests that H pylori is an epidemiological key factor in the pathogenesis of gastroduodenal diseases in this area.