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Hiding in Plain Sight? It's Time to Investigate Other Possible Transmission Routes for Hepatitis E Virus (HEV) in Developed Countries

Abstract

Historically in developed countries, reported hepatitis E cases were typically travellers returning from countries where hepatitis E virus (HEV) is endemic, but now there are increasing numbers of non-travel-related (“autochthonous”) cases being reported. Data for HEV in New Zealand remain limited and the transmission routes unproven. We critically reviewed the scientific evidence supporting HEV transmission routes in other developed countries to inform how people in New Zealand may be exposed to this virus. A substantial body of indirect evidence shows domesticated pigs are a source of zoonotic human HEV infection, but there is an information bias towards this established reservoir. The increasing range of animals in which HEV has been detected makes it important to consider other possible animal reservoirs of HEV genotypes that can or could infect humans. Foodborne transmission of HEV from swine and deer products has been proven, and a large body of indirect evidence (e.g. food surveys, epidemiological studies and phylogenetic analyses) support pig products as vehicles of HEV infection. Scarce data from other foods suggest we are neglecting other potential sources of foodborne HEV infection. Moreover, other transmission routes are scarcely investigated in developed countries; the role of infected food handlers, person-to-person transmission via the faecal–oral route, and waterborne transmission from recreational contact or drinking untreated or inadequately treated water. People have become symptomatic after receiving transfusions of HEV-contaminated blood, but it is unclear how important this is in the overall hepatitis E disease burden. There is need for broader research efforts to support establishing risk-based controls.

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