According to a report in the Dail Telegraph, a rare type of hepatitis E has killed 3 people in Cornwall and caused at least 55 more across the UK to fall ill.
Hepatitis E is generally thought to be caused by poor sanitary conditions and previously it had been assumed that British sufferers had caught the disease abroad.
But Dr Harry Dalton, a consultant gastroenterologist at Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust, said the recent patients he had seen did not fit the usual criteria. He said, “Not only had the patients not travelled abroad but they didn’t fit the normal age range for the virus. In other parts of the world it usually affects the young. However in the cases being seen in the UK, it is the middle aged and elderly, particularly men.”
He believes that the main cause is contact with raw pork and is now researching the link. Patients with liver problems admitted to hospital will be checked to see if the problems had been caused by hepatitis E [virus infection].
However a spokesman for the Health Protection Agency (HPA) said: “The South West Peninsula HPA previously worked with Dr Harry Dalton, Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust to investigate a number of hepatitis E cases from Dec 2009 to March 2010 in the Cornwall area.
The team concluded that there was no epidemiological link between the cases or an associated link with eating or handling pork. Although we are aware of a number of hepatitis E cases in the UK the majority are acquired outside the UK or related to travel to endemic countries.”
It is acknowledged that pigs and pork can harbour hepatitis E virus and that this may be the cause of the disease in cases where there has not been any foreign travel, according to the HPA website. Dr Dalton said those with existing liver conditions are most at risk and advised people to take care when preparing pork. He added: “The message is not to not eat pork, but to simply make sure it is cooked properly and that hands are washed thoroughly after handling it raw.”
Dr Dalton believes hepatitis E could be affecting as many as 1200 people in the UK every year. He said that victims become jaundiced and this has resulted in patients being misdiagnosed as suffering from alcohol abuse.
Dr Dalton said there have been 3 deaths related to hepatitis E infection over the last 7 years and around 60 cases of hepatitis E in Cornwall and Devon between 1999-2010, the vast majority of whom have been seen since 2005.
The HPA website said there were 178 cases of hepatitis E in Britain in 2008 and 179 in 2009. Most people clear the infection without treatment, however people with weakened immune systems or liver disease may need closer observation, it said. There is no vaccine against hepatitis E. In 2008, 4 people in Britain fell ill with the virus after a world cruise. Infected shellfish were found to be the cause.