Hundreds of health care workers in Montgomery County are receiving hepatitis B vaccines as part of a unique program to try to protect medical personnel from contracting the potentially life-threatening liver disease.

The program was initiated after members of the Montgomery County Medical Society and the county health department sought a way to highlight the dangers of the disease for health care workers. While there has been no sudden surge in cases of hepatitis B -- which can be transmitted through sexual contact, the handling of blood products or other bodily fluids, or by being pricked with a hepatitis-infected needle -- Montgomery health officials said they believe the vaccination program is necessary to protect one of the groups at highest risk for the disease.

The vaccinations are not mandatory, but are being offered at discounted prices in the hopes of attracting interest, officials said.

Lynn Frank, director of the division of communicable diseases and epidemiology at the county health department, said some pharmaceutical companies are providing the vaccines to the county at a lower-than-usual cost, and doctors in private practice administering the shots will be able to pass the savings on to the health care workers.

The costs will vary, however, depending on what the physician charges, and health department officials said they had no information on what the charges are.

Frank said the program, which the county government is sponsoring along with the Montgomery County Medical Society and the Southern Maryland Dental Society, represents an attempt to attack the spread of the liver disease among one group that is at risk because of "an occupational hazard."

Frank said many doctors who are affiliated with a hospital may have already received the three-dose hepatitis B vaccine as part of their hospital's program. But, dentists, who for the most part are not associated with a large facility, often are not vaccinated. Frank said the county has made a particular effort in this campaign to interest dentists and others in their offices in receiving the vaccine.

During the first six months of this year, 24 cases of hepatitis B were reported in Montgomery. The health department did not have figures available as to how many of those cases may have involved health care workers.

Nationally, it is estimated that health care workers account for 15,000 of an average total of 300,000 hepatitis B cases each year. About 10,000 patients each year are hospitalized with the disease and 250 die. The workers at greatest risk are those with frequent contact with blood, such as surgeons, physicians, dentists, dental hygienists, oral surgeons and other medical personnel and laboratory workers.

"They are not an obvious risk group," said Barbara Blaylock, a member of the Montgomery medical society's public health committee. "That's why we need to bring them in."

Aside from health care workers, hepatitis B is most commonly contracted by people with multiple sexual partners, gay men and hemophiliacs -- groups also at risk for the AIDS virus. Some Southeast Asians in the area may also be carriers of hepatitis B, health officials said, because the disease is endemic to such countries as South Korea and China. The health department has not established a special program to screen or vaccinate people other than those in risk groups.

"First, you've got to take care of the people who take care of the people who are sick," Frank said.

The Montgomery program started in January and expanded in June, with letters sent to 3,000 medical offices urging workers to seek vaccinations. Figures are not yet available on how many health care workers have sought vaccines through the program, but 100 were vaccinated in January.