Hepatitis E is a form of viral hepatitis which is prevalent in developing nations with poor sanitation. Like other forms of viral hepatitis, the condition is caused by a virus which attacks the liver, causing inflammation and a decline in liver function which can lead to fatigue, nausea, abdominal tenderness, and jaundice. In some cases, hepatitis E can lead to liver failure, a life-threatening complication which will lead to death if it is not addressed.
Doctors recognized some form of hepatitis E as early as the 1950s, when they documented viral outbreaks of what came to be known as enteric non-A, non-B hepatitis. In the 1980s, microscopy of fecal samples from affected patients was used to identify the virus and distinguish it from other hepatitis viruses, and the designation “hepatitis E” was used to describe the distinctive virus.
This form of viral hepatitis is transmitted through fecal contact with infected individuals. The most common vector is water, which can become contaminated as a result of improper sanitation. People can also pass hepatitis E in unclean restrooms and kitchen facilities, making it similar to hepatitis A, another virus which causes digestive upset in addition to liver problems. Many patients experience vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and similar symptoms while they are battling infection.
Usually, hepatitis E is self limiting, which means that the infection will resolve on its own after several weeks or months. However, the condition can be very dangerous for pregnant women, with mortality rates rising to around 20% in pregnant women who become infected. It can also be dangerous for people with other forms of hepatitis or chronic liver disease, especially hepatitis C, as it can put more strain on the liver than the body can handle. Immunocompromised individuals are also at greater risk of developing and dying from hepatitis E infections.
Hepatitis E treatment focuses on keeping the patient comfortable and hydrated, and monitoring for major changes. No medications can be used to clear the infection, and vaccines are currently not available, although several companies are working on a hepatitis E vaccine. The best way to cope with the infection is to avoid getting it, which requires careful attention to sanitation in developing nations. Travelers are at especially high risk for getting this infection, as they may not be aware of sanitation issues, and their bodies are often strained by travel stress, which makes them more susceptible to infection.