Evidence for widespread infection of wild rats with hepatitis E virus in the United States.

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  • 1 Hepatitis Viruses Section, Laboratory of Infectious Diseases, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.

Hepatitis E is an important medical pathogen in many developing countries but is rarely reported from the United States, although antibody to hepatitis E virus (anti-HEV) is found in > 1% of U.S. citizens. Zoonotic spread of the virus is suspected. Sera obtained from 239 wild rats trapped in widely separated regions of the United States were tested for anti-HEV. Seventy-seven percent of rats from Maryland, 90% from Hawaii, and 44% from Louisiana were seropositive for anti-HEV. Rats from urban as well as rural areas were seropositive and the prevalence of anti-HEV IgG increased in parallel with the estimated age of the rats, leading to speculation that they might be involved in the puzzling high prevalence of anti-HEV among some U.S. city dwellers. The discovery of a in rats in the United States and the recently reported discovery that HEV is endemic in U.S. swine raise many questions about transmission, reservoirs, and strains of HEV in developed countries.