Scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda, Md., have identified a strain of hepatitis E virus in pigs that is very similar to the strain that causes disease in humans. However, there is no evidence that the pig virus causes disease in either humans or pigs. The finding, published in the Sept. 2, 1997 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should help advance studies of hepatitis E disease in humans and eventually could lead to the development of a vaccine.
"This is a very interesting finding that will open new avenues of research, and contribute to strategies to treat or prevent hepatitis E disease," says Robert H. Purcell, M.D., chief of the hepatitis viruses section in NIAIDs Laboratory of Infectious Diseases (LID) and senior author of the study. "Unlike hepatitis A, B and C, hepatitis E disease almost never occurs in the United States. However, epidemics of the disease do occur periodically in developing nations in Africa and Asia."
Hepatitis E virus is most commonly transmitted to people through contaminated drinking water in areas with poor sanitation. The disease generally affects young adults and usually is not life-threatening, except in pregnant women infected with the virus where fatality rates of 15 to 20 percent have been reported.