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Hepatitis E

Hepatitis E is a liver disease caused by a virus. It is found in many countries, such as India, Asia, Africa and Central America, but is generally not seen in New Zealand. There are an estimated 20 million hepatitis E infections worldwide every year.

What are the symptoms?

Signs and symptoms of hepatitis E are similar to other forms of hepatitis, especially in people aged 15-40. These include:

  • Jaundice

  • Dark urine and pale faeces

  • Loss of appetite

  • Abdominal pain and tenderness

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Fever.

Infection is common in children but there are usually no symptoms, other than a mild illness (without jaundice).

In adults, symptoms show 2-10 weeks after exposure and usually last 2-6 weeks. Occasionally the virus can result in acute liver failure, which can be fatal.

Pregnant women are at greater risk of complications and death from hepatitis E.

How is the virus spread?

Hepatitis E is transmitted mainly through drinking water contaminated with faeces. It can also be  foodborne (from infected animals or by eating raw or uncooked shellfish), spread through transfusion of infected blood products and passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn baby. This is known as vertical transmission.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosis of hepatitis E is made by a blood test that detects antibodies. This test is only done if tests for other types of hepatitis are negative.

How can I avoid spreading it?

  • Wash your hands thoroughly, using plenty of soap, cleaning under fingernails, rinsing hands well and drying thoroughly after going to the toilet or changing nappies, and before preparing or eating food

  • Wash all linen and clothing used by a person with the virus during illness in hot water.

How is it treated?

No medical treatment is needed. The virus can be managed by the infected person, such as by drinking plenty of fluids.

Eating only cooked shellfish will help you avoid hepatitis E.

How can I protect myself from hepatitis E?

The risk of infection and transmission can be reduced by:

  • Maintaining hygienic practices such as hand washing with safe water, particularly before handling food

  • Avoiding drinking water and/or ice that could be contaminated, uncooked shellfish and raw fruits or vegetables that are not peeled or have been prepared by people living in or travelling in highly endemic countries.

When can I return to work or school if I’ve had hepatitis E?

You can only resume work or school once you’ve been cleared by your doctor or local hospital and are no longer infectious. Please talk to your doctor if you are concerned about hepatitis E. He or she may contact you to find out how you got the illness (to stop others contracting it) and arrange follow-up.


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