HONG KONG • A Hong Kong man has contracted the rat version of the hepatitis E virus - the world's first human case, according to new research from one of the city's leading universities.
There previously had been no evidence the disease could jump from rats to humans, the University of Hong Kong said yesterday, warning that the discovery had major public health significance, Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency reported.
"This study conclusively proves for the first time in the world that rat HEV can infect humans to cause clinical infection," the university added.
Rat hepatitis E virus (HEV) is very distantly related to human HEV variants, the university said.
The disease was found in a 56-year-old man who underwent a liver transplant at the Queen Mary Hospital in May last year.
But two months after he was discharged from hospital, he persistently produced abnormal liver function test results and was found to have caught the disease, said local reports.
He could have contracted the illness through food infected by rat droppings, researchers said, according to details of the findings reported in the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The man lived in the Choi Wan housing estate in Kowloon's Wong Tai Sin District and signs of rat infestation could be seen outside his home.
A medical team investigating his case reported seeing rat droppings littered among piles of clutter near his place.
The patient is now recovering after being treated for the virus, the SCMP added.
Microbiologist Yuen Kwok Yung assured the public that there was no need to panic, though it was uncertain whether the disease could hit epidemic levels, Apple Daily reported. However, Hong Kongers should be fully prepared to prevent an outbreak and keep their environment clean, the microbiologist added.
The human version of hepatitis E is a liver disease that affects 20 million people globally each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
It is usually spread through contaminated drinking water. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, jaundice and, in rare cases, liver failure.
Rodent problems in Hong Kong have escalated in recent months because of a sustained spell of hot and humid weather, AFP reported.
Hong Kong has been hit hard by disease outbreaks in the past.
In 2003, almost 300 people died from severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars). In the late 19th century, the bubonic plague, carried by rats, swept through China and Hong Kong, killing thousands.