World Hepatitis Day 2014: Study reveals UK blood donors ‘passing on Hepatitis E’

New figures released as World Hepatitis Day asks global leaders to ‘think again’ about set of deadly viral diseases

Figures released to coincide with World Hepatitis Day have revealed that an estimated 1,200 blood transfusions carried out each year in England contain the hepatitis E virus.

The study found that on average one in every 3,000 blood donors in the country may be carrying the virus, which is not included in screening processes.

Of those exposed to contaminated blood, transmission of hepatitis E occurred in over 40 per cent of cases.

The disease is not considered to be as severe as hepatitis B or C – which are screened for by the NHS’s Blood and Transplant team – and usually results in mild, short-term infections.

But the World Health Organisation says it can occasionally lead to acute liver failure and death, particularly among vulnerable groups such as people with pre-existing liver disease or pregnant women.

For their survey, researchers retrospectively screened 225,000 blood donations collected in the south east of England between October 2012 and September 2013. Their results were published in The Lancet journal.

Lead investigator Professor Richard Tedder, from the Blood Borne Virus Unit at Public Health England, said that while the results did not suggest a “pressing need” for hepatitis E screening on all donations, they were cause enough for “a broader discussion over harm mitigation”.

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Professor Tedder said the transfusion-induced infections counted for a relatively small proportion of the 80,000 and 100,000 infections estimated to have occurred in England during the study period.

“Although rarely causing any acute illness, hepatitis E infections may become persistent in immunosuppressed patients, putting them at risk of future chronic liver disease, and a policy is needed to identify these persistently infected patients and provide them with appropriate antiviral treatment,” he said.

Viral hepatitis in all its forms kills around 1.45 million people every year, while 400 million people are living with the effects of one of the condition.

It is now the number one infectious disease killer, and the World Health Organisation created World Hepatitis Day in 2010 to recognise that in no other disease area is there such a huge gap between the burden and the level of awareness.

Charles Gore, the chief executive of The Hepatitis C Trust, wrote in today’s Independent: “It is good that viral hepatitis is starting to get the attention it merits but, except in Scotland, it remains comparatively under-resourced in the UK.

“There is still a long way to go to find the 200,000-300,000 people unaware that they are living with a potentially fatal viral infection.”

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