Hepatitis E virus infection may be widespread in rats

d," says Robert H. Purcell, M.D., chief of the hepatitis viruses section in NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases and senior author of the study. "It may be that the high prevalence of HEV antibodies in the absence of disease is due to infection with a strain of HEV that doesn't cause disease. Another possibility is that animals serve as reservoirs of HEV and pass a weakened form of the virus on to humans."

Dr. Purcell and his colleagues recently isolated HEV from swine in the United States, suggesting one possible source of exposure. However, HEV antibodies are detected primarily among residents of urban areas in the United States, where people rarely encounter pigs. Rats, on the other hand, have been ubiquitous city-dwellers for hundreds of years.

"Our data strongly suggest that many wild rats in the United States are naturally infected by HEV," says Dr. Purcell. "A major question is whether the HEV strain infecting rats is a new strain unique to rats or a variant of already recognized HEV strains."

To answer that question the researchers will need to isolate and characterize the rat virus, something they were unable to do in the current study. Their data suggest that rats become infected with HEV early in life. Other studies have shown that HEV disappears from the blood soon after HEV antibodies are produced. The researchers' best hope for isolating the virus, therefore, lies in trapping young rats that recently have been infected with HEV.

Dr. Purcell and his colleagues will attempt to pass the virus from infected wild rats to rats raised in the laboratory. In addition to providing clues about the source of HEV antibodies in humans, their efforts could result in an inexpensive new animal model for studying HEV infection, says Dr. Purcell. Currently, scientists must use expensive primate models to study the virus.

"Rat HEV has probably been around a long time," says Dr. Purcell. "We still do not know the source of the high pre

Contact: John Bowersox
NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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