United States scientists have uncovered a virus in farmed rabbits that marks the first time it has been identified in US rabbits. The virus that up until now was only found in Chinese rabbits, was identified by researchers in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. The virus identified by the researchers was the hepatitis E virus, a virus that may have some serious effects on animal health. But what does this mean for humans?
The hepatitis E virus isn’t especially dangerous. The mortality rate with the virus in humans is less than 1 percent, but like most other illnesses and diseases, the effects can be amplified on pregnant women or young children. Unfortunately, the researchers don’t yet know if the strain found in the rabbits can infect humans, although there is some evidence showing that it is indeed probable.
Hepatitis E has at least four genotypes. The first two genotypes, genotypes 1 and 2, can only affect humans. Infection from the first two genotypes usually only occur due to poor sanitation conditions. Genotypes 3 and 4, however, can spread from animals to humans and are found everywhere. The genotype found in the rabbits, although still unknown, is most closely related to genotype 3. This finding shows that the hepatitis virus found in the rabbits could potentially be transmittable to humans since the genotype almost matches genotype 3.
Dr. X.J. Meng, a professor of biomedical sciences and pathobiology in the veterinary college and senior author of the study, states:
“It is worth noting that the strains of the virus found in rabbits in the U.S. and China closely relate to genotype 3, a genotype that has been shown to transfer from animals to humans. The question is, ‘Do the strains of hepatitis E virus in rabbits infect humans?’ We don’t know, but the possibility is there and more research is needed to address this potential concern.”
Fecal and Serum samples were gathered from 85 rabbits from two farms in Virginia; one farm was in Southwest Virginia and the other in Eastern Virginia. Caitlin Cossaboom of Slisbury, an MD and first author of the publication “Hepatitis E Virus in Rabbits, Virginia, US”, and her colleagues were the ones to collect the samples, and found that 50 percent of the rabbits had been exposed to the hepatitis E virus. Cossaboom notes that it is unknown whether the virus found in the rabbits are able to infect across species or serve as a reservoir. This issue is important because pigs can actually serve as “animal reservoirs” for genotypes 3 and 4. What this means is that pigs are able to basically hold and transport the virus, and the virus could end up transmitting to humans.
These findings will undoubtedly ignite more research behind hepatitis E and whether this strain can infect humans. Hopefully this information won’t be abused, resulting in the push for the population to receive a hepatitis E vaccination. At this time, it appears that hepatitis E poses little threat to human health, though the H1N1 swine flu virus that ignited a global pandemic was also found to be quite harmless.