What is hepatitis E and how can you avoid it?
The media has recently been full of stories about sausages and other meat from pigs contaminated with hepatitis E, potentially causing health issues. But what is hepatitis E and what can be done to lessen the risk of contracting the virus?
Hepatitis E is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV). The virus has at least four different types. In European countries, the illness can be caused by what is known as zoonosis where the virus can be found in animals such as pigs, wild boar, deer, rabbits and rats. It does not cause the animals any illness but the virus can sometimes be passed from them to humans. One way this can happen is through undercooked meat.
The incubation period, before symptoms appear, can range from two weeks to nine weeks. When the symptoms do appear they can include:
- mild flu-like symptoms
- dark or brown urine
- abdominal pain
- loss of appetite
- nausea and vomiting
- aching joints and muscles
- tingling, numbness and weakness in your arms and legs
According to Public Health England (PHE), most people do not require treatment, as their infections will clear naturally. But, while infected, it advises people to avoid alcohol. Pregnant women and older people, those with weakened immune systems, and people with chronic liver disease can experience more severe infections. These patients can require closer observation in case the infection affects their liver function and they should see their GP.
PHE advises that during the first two weeks of hepatitis E illness:
- avoid preparing food for others – especially for those who are pregnant, old or who have a compromised immune system or a liver condition
- limit contact with others if possible, especially pregnant women, or people with chronic liver disease
Close contacts should:
- wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water and then dry properly after contact with an infected person
- wash hands after going to the toilet, before preparing, serving and eating food
Currently, there is no licensed vaccine for hepatitis E. To limit the risk of infection PHE suggests:
- cooking meat and meat products thoroughly
- avoiding eating raw or undercooked meat and shellfish
- washing hands thoroughly before preparing, serving and eating food