Hepatitis E in pigs in Israel: seroprevalence, molecular characterisation and potential impact on humans

Introduction

The zoonotic hepatitis E virus (HEV) genotype 3 (HEV-G3) has become a common cause of acute and chronic hepatitis among humans worldwide. In Israel, while HEV-3 sequences have previously been detected in sewage, only the non-zoonotic HEV-G1 genotype has been found in samples from human patients.

Aim

In this pilot study, we aimed to assess the status of HEV in a sample of the swine population and among swine farm workers in Israel.

Methods

Pig blood (n = 141) and faecal samples (n = 39), pig farm sewage samples (n = 8) and blood from farm workers (n = 24) were collected between February 2016 and October 2017. Anti-HEV IgG was detected using the Wantai assay. HEV RNA was analysed with the RealStar HEV kit. HEV open reading frame 1 fragments amplified from representative HEV RNA-positive samples were used for phylogenetic analysis.

Results

Overall prevalence of HEV antibodies in pigs was 75.9% (107/141). HEV RNA was detected in plasma (2.1%, 3/141), faecal (22.8%, 18/79) and pig sewage (4/8) samples. Pig and sewage-derived viral sequences clustered with previously identified human sewage HEV-G3 sequences. Most pig farms workers (23 of 24) were HEV-seropositive; none was viraemic or reported previous clinical signs.

Conclusions

This study showed that domestic pigs in Israel are infected with HEV-G3. The high HEV seropositivity of the farm workers together with the previous identification of this virus in human sewage suggests circulation to humans. The clinical impact of these findings on public health should be further explored.