A new report this week outlined an increasing virus problem in Hong Kong, which is attached to mainland China, where rat hepatitis E is jumping from rats to humans for the first time in history, and no one seems to know how it’s happening.
The first case was reported in 2018 when infectious disease experts at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) examined a man who had just undergone a liver transplant and was having liver problems.
“Tests found that his immune system was responding to hepatitis E – but they couldn’t actually find the human strain of the hepatitis E virus (HEV) in his blood,” CNN reported. “With tests for that human strain of HEV negative, the researchers redesigned the diagnostic test, ran it again – and found, for the first time in history, rat hepatitis E in a human.”
Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, a microbiologist at HKU, told CNN that “suddenly, we have a virus that can jump from street rats to humans” but added that it was not clear if it was just a “one-off incident.”
Since the first discovery, ten more cases have been identified in Hong Kong with the most recently discovered case being identified a week ago in a man who had no recent travel history and had no signs of rats in his home.
“The rat strain poses a new mystery: nobody knows exactly how these people are getting infected,” CNN added. “In the two years since the discovery, researchers have yet to identify the exact route of transmission from rats to humans. They have theories – maybe the patients drank contaminated water like the usual human strain, or handled contaminated objects – but nothing’s been definitively proven.”
Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) said in a statement at the end of April that the man was still in the hospital.
Scientists say that while most people experience mild symptoms from the rat hepatitis E virus, those with weakened immune systems can experience severe symptoms, including tissue scarring and liver damage.
Scientists “don’t know how long this virus’ incubation period is – meaning how long it takes for patients to get sick after exposure. They’re still trying to find a treatment, as the medication used to treat the human variant of hepatitis E has had mixed results on patients with rat HEV,” CNN added. “Not knowing how the virus jumps from rats to humans makes it very difficult to prevent further infections – or even to make sense of all the data researchers have collected. For instance, people who live in rat-infested areas should theoretically be at higher risk, yet some infected patients come from neighborhoods with low rat numbers.”
The report added that scientists were testing rat populations throughout the city in an attempt to identify clusters of rats that are infected with the virus before more people become infected, and that the researchers believe that the 11 cases in Hong Kong were “likely just the tip of the iceberg.”
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