For this first time, researchers have detected a rat variation of the hepatitis E virus in a person. It was found in a 56-year-old Hong Kong man who had recently received a liver transplant.
It’s tough to say if there is a consensus about whether infections that jump to a new species, called zoonotic, are more dangerous. But we do know that many serious diseases have jumped species, like Lyme disease, avian flu, or rabies. In a densely populated area like Hong Kong, they warrant a closer look, Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical assistant professor in the Hong Kong University Department of Microbiology told the New York Times.
He added that “infections that jump from animals to humans must be taken very seriously. For these kinds of rare infections, unusual infections, even one case is enough to make public health authorities and researchers very alert about the implications of the disease. One is all it takes.”
While the patient had gotten a transplant, the researchers ruled that and blood donors out as potential sources of the infection. There were rat droppings found near the patient's home, and by testing samples collected from his neighborhood in the past few years, the researchers were able to find that at least one rat in the area was infected with the hepatitis E virus.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the hepatitis E virus causes an estimated 3.3 cases of symptomatic hepatitis E every year. It is a liver disease that killed 44,000 people in 2015. It's a problem worldwide, but primarily affects people that lack access to clean water; it happens when water is contaminated with fecal matter, and has not occurred because of a rat-to-human transmission before this case.
It causes nausea, vomiting, reduced appetite, and a mild fever. Some people experience itching or joint pain. It can also cause jaundice and enlarges the liver slightly.
Because there is no specific treatment for the viral infection, prevention is the best way to fight the illness. That means getting people easier access to water and hygienic facilities.