Hepatitis E recovered from rats in Los Angeles

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have recovered a virus similar to the hepatitis E virus (HEV) from rats in Los Angeles, California, a finding that may explain high levels of HEV exposure in inner-city residents without disease. They report their findings today at the 50th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

"There is a fair amount of antibodies to HEV in humans in the United States, suggesting exposure, but very little clinical manifestations of the disease," says Robert Purcell, Co-Chief of the Laboratory of Infectious Diseases and Head of the Hepatitis Viruses Section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and primary author of the study.

HEV infection is one of the most common causes of hepatitis in central Asia. Unlike some other forms of hepatitis, like hepatitis B and C, HEV infection is self-limiting, lasting 1 to 4 weeks, and is generally not life threatening, except in pregnant women where fatality rates of 15 to 20 percent have been reported.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most cases of HEV disease in the United States have occurred among travelers returning from developing countries. Still, between 1 and 5 percent of healthy blood donors in the United States have HEV antibodies in their blood with rates over 20 percent in some inner city areas.

Swine have been shown to be a possible source of HEV exposure and the swine virus, while quite similar to the human virus, does not appear to cause disease, at least in swine.

"However, most inner-city residents do not come into contact with pigs on a regular basis," says Purcell. "That was when we got interested in looking at rats." Previous studies have shown that a high percentage of wild rats in the United States have antibodies against HEV, suggesting previous infection. While pigs are not ubiquitous in urban areas, rats are. Because HEV infections are rel

Contact: Jim Sliwa
American Society for Microbiology

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