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UK: concerns about hepatitis E virus in pork

British doctors have reported that consumers have been found infected with hepatitis E that can be found in pork that is produced in mainland Europe.

The Sunday Times reported about a publication by Public Health England (PHE), in which a new strain of hepatitis E (HEv) is linked to pig farms in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark. Reportedly, it has infected over 60,000 people in the UK per year. The strain may have ended up in about 10% of sausages.

Public Health England showed the number of severe cases had almost trebled since 2010, with 1,244 reported in 2016 to 368 6 years earlier.

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The strain used to be mainly a tropical disease but has now mutated to infect livestock. It causes an illness in humans that looks like influenza. It is only killed in the meat if consumers cook the food for longer than normal.

‘Brexit virus’

The virus has already been nicknamed ‘Brexit virus’ by Dr Harry Dalton, a gastro-enterologist at Exeter University, UK. At a conference on neurological infectious diseases recently, he said that HEv had become a major threat.

He said: “It attacks the liver and nerves, with a peak in May. It is particularly dangerous for people with suppressed immune systems such as those who have had organ transplants and possibly cancer.”

Responses from the pig industry

In a statement, the UK’s National Pig Association (NPA) pointed to the fact that high-level presence of the virus was only found in 6 out of 629 pigs sampled, in a research from 2013.

“The finding was from a limited sample size of 63 sausages from 11 batches. While 6 sausages tested positive for HEv, 5 of these were from the same batch. The origin of the meat in the sausages was not known.”

Pork used in a typical British breakfast. Photo: Jamezcd | Wikipedia
Pork used in a typical British breakfast. Photo: Jamezcd | Wikipedia

The NPA added that pigs are a natural reservoir for HEv and infection is present in pig populations worldwide.

Imported pork, not British pork

The NPA said: “The NPA agrees with the conclusion of the researchers that if people in this country have contracted hepatitis E virus from eating pork, it is likely to have come from imported pork, rather than British pork.”

“AHDB Pork has commissioned a number of research projects to better understand HEv presence on British pig farms and the risk to public health. Further research and surveillance is required to determine the true cause of the rise in hepatitis E cases in the UK.”

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