Each year, 20 million people worldwide are infected with hepatitis E, over 3 million fall ill and more than 50’000 die of the consequences. The hepatitis E virus acts similarly to the hepatitis A virus. It is transmitted via drinking water that is contaminated with faeces of people who carry the virus. Chronic infections are extremely rare. In some regions, such as Asia, China, Indonesia, Africa, the Middle East and Mexico, the virus has caused epidemics with thousands of victims. Switzerland has not had many infections reported yet – not even by people who have travelled in the affected regions.
The incubation period for hepatitis E is three to eight weeks. The illness usually produces no symptoms. Sometimes the typical hepatitis symptoms occur, such as yellowing of skin and eyes, enlarged liver, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and fever. The infection lasts usually around two to three weeks. The virus is particularly dangerous for pregnant woman, as it can cause miscarriages and stillbirths or liver failure.
At present there are no treatments available for hepatitis E. It is advisable to rest, abstain from alcohol and avoid liver-harming medication. A high carbohydrate and low-fat diet is also recommended. A glimmer of hope is a vaccine, recently developed and licensed in China.
There are two rules of thumb for some protection: in affected regions always boil drinking water and follow the motto cook it, boil it, peel it or leave it.