What is Hepatitis E?
Hepatitis E is a liver disease caused by a virus of the same name. It produces symptoms similar to that of the flu, along with abdominal pain, jaundice, joint pain, dark urine, and clay-colored stool. Those symptoms typically appear a little over a month after exposure.
The World Health Organization says there are about 20 million HEV infections worldwide, only 3.3 million of which are symptomatic. Viral hepatitis has a 3.3% mortality rate, which is extremely high when compared to other viruses. The flu, for instance, has a 0.1% mortality rate. It’s important to note, the HEV fatality percentage is heightened because of the rate of more vulnerable groups. The mortality rate among pregnant women in their third trimester can reach as high as 30%. HEV is also a serious threat for people with preexisting liver conditions and people who’ve had organ transplants. However, the rate among healthy adults is much lower, typically closer to 1% (still ten times higher than the flu).
How Do You Get Hepatitis E?
Hepatitis E spreads through the stool of people who are infected. It enters the body through the intestine, and is typically transmitted through contaminated drinking water.
A person with an HEV infection typically remains infectious between one week before onset, and 30 days after jaundice develops. The CDC says people who are chronically infected can distribute the virus for the entire time they are afflicted by it.
Hepatitis E is found worldwide, but is more common in Africa and Asia. The CDC says it is rare in the U.S.; it’s more likely to affect low-income countries where access to clean water and sanitation services are limited. When a water supply is infected with HEV, it can infect thousands of people at a time.
If you are traveling to an undeveloped country, you should not drink water that is not purified. Stick to bottled water, or make sure you boil water before ingesting it. Developed nations include chemicals in the water supply that kill the hepatitis E virus. Chlorination also kills the virus in pools.
When people do get it in the U.S. it’s more often because of undercooked pork, venison, or boar meat. Cooking foods thoroughly kills the virus.
Clinical tests aren’t able to distinguish hepatitis E from other forms of acute viral hepatitis. Diagnosis is confirmed by testing for an antibody against HEV. Doctors will also ask about recent travel, sources of drinking water, food that may have been uncooked or undercooked, and contact with anyone showing signs of jaundice. Recent and unprovoked injury to the liver also suggest hepatitis E should be considered as a culprit.
Hepatitis E typically resolves itself without treatment. For those who do need it, doctors are only able to treat the symptoms, not get rid of the virus itself. Patients must take in plenty of fluids and eat a nutritional diet, avoid alcohol, get plenty of rest, and stop taking medication that can damage the liver, like acetaminophen.
Right now, there is no vaccine available for the hepatitis E virus in the U.S. but in 2012, China approved the use of a recombinant vaccine.