Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E, sometimes called hep E or HEV, is a liver disease caused by the hepatitis E virus. A virus is a microscopic particle that needs to get inside living cells in order to reproduce (spread).

Facts about Hepatitis E

Most people in the UK will not have heard of hepatitis E. Until very recently, it was thought to be a disease only found in developing countries. However, it is now accepted that the virus is also transmitted here.
Hepatitis E is generally mild in its effect unless you have pre-existing liver disease or are pregnant. Chronic infection (infection lasting over six months) caused by hepatitis E is very rare and usually only reported in patients with a suppressed immune system, for example in patients taking drugs to prevent rejection after an organ transplantation.
The hepatitis E virus is spread in a way similar to hepatitis A, known as ‘faecal-oral’ transmission. This means that the virus is passed out in bowel motions (faeces) and finds its way into the mouth (orally), usually through contaminated food or water. This is one of the reasons why it is important to wash your hands after going to the toilet. The illness does not usually spread easily within families, except when all members of the family have been drinking the same infected drinking water and/or contaminated food.
In European countries, such as the UK, the illness can also be caused by what is known as ‘zoonosis’. This means the virus can be found in animals such as pigs, wild boar, deer, rabbits and rats. It does not cause the animals any illness, however, the virus can sometimes be passed from the animal to humans. One way this can happen is by eating raw or undercooked meat. In most cases the source and route of infection is unknown.
Widespread outbreaks of the virus can occur frequently or constantly in overseas countries (referred to as ‘endemic areas’) where water supplies are contaminated with sewage after monsoons and flooding.
Unlike hepatitis B, C or D, there is no evidence of the hepatitis E virus being transmitted through sharing needles, bodily fluids or through sexual contact. However, there is a risk of transmission if there is mouth contact with the anal area.
There have also been a number of cases reported where hepatitis E has been transmitted through blood transfusions and organ transplants.