A strain of hepatitis E previously only observed in rats has been discovered in a human for the first time. A man from Hong Kong was diagnosed with the condition last September, after receiving a liver transplant in May 2017.
While other diseases have previously passed from rodents to humans, this is the first time we have observed a liver disease exclusive to rats make the jump. A report on the finding will be published in a few months' time in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. The study was led by Professor Yuen Kwok-yung and Dr Siddharth Sridhar from Hong Kong University.
In a press conference, reported by the South China Morning Post, Professor Yuen stated that this case can be seen as a wake-up call for Hong Kong to improve its environmental hygiene and prevent this from happening again.
“These kinds of unusual infections, rare infections, first instances – even one case is enough to make public health authorities and researchers very alert about the implications,” Dr Sridhar stated.
“We don’t know if in future there will be a serious outbreak of the rat Hepatitis E virus in Hong Kong. We need to closely monitor this issue,” added Professor Yuen.
It is unclear how the 56-year-old patient became infected with the disease. He may have eaten food contaminated with infected rat droppings, or perhaps was bitten without realizing. The researchers visited the patient's home and discovered his flat was next to a refuse chute and that rats could easily move between the two. Tests showed that none of the rats in the area were infected. However, a frozen sample from a rat collected there in 2012 indicates the presence of the disease.
The patient was put on a course of ribavirin, a standard antiviral medication which is used in cases of chronic hepatitis E. He was cleared of the disease last March. A vaccine to prevent the human version of hepatitis E has been developed in China but is yet to be made available elsewhere.
According to the World Health Organization, roughly 20 million people are infected with Hepatitis E every year, with about 44,000 deaths in 2015. The virus is found worldwide and is usually caught by drinking water contaminated with the feces of infected people.
[H/T: South China Morning Post]