Wearing gloves when eviscerating game protects hunters against hepatitis E

Wild boars can carry the hepatitis E virus (HEV). For hunters this poses an increased risk of infection through direct contact with wild boars during field dressing for producing game meat. "This risk can be significantly reduced by wearing gloves during evisceration of game and subsequent carving up of meat and preparation for consumption." BfR-President Professor Dr. Dr. Andreas Hensel concludesfrom the results of a new study which the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) conducted in cooperation with other research institutions. "Therefore hunters can effectively protect themselves from an HEV infection by wearing gloves." The BfR takes this study as an opportunity to reinforce its recommendations regarding improved hygienic measures for disembowelling and preparing wild boars - also in the context of other pathogens.

Hepatitis E is an acute inflammation of the liver caused by the Hepatitis E virus (HEV). In Germany, the number of reported hepatitis E cases has increased rapidly over the last few years. Earlier studies had shown that the hepatitis E virus (HEV) is widely distributed in domestic and wild pigs in Germany. The infected animals do not show any signs of illness but can transmit the virus to humans nevertheless.

The occasion for the study was a case of acute hepatitis E among the family members of a hunter. In the year 2012, the competent veterinary office of the district in which the hunter family lived initiated a study which was coordinated by the BfR and conducted in close cooperation with the veterinary office, the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institute and the Robert Koch-Institute. The goal was to establish the distribution of the hepatitis E virus and HEV-specific antibodies in hunters of the administrative district and in wild boars within their hunting areas. In addition, risk and protective factors relating to HEV transmission to hunters should be identified. For this purpose, the blood of the hunters and the killed wild pigs were tested. To complement these tests, the hunters were asked about their hunting behaviour by means of specially drawn up questionnaires. The result of the investigations: in total 21 % of the 126 studied hunters had HEV-specific antibodies in their blood which is roughly comparable to the prevalence established for the normal population in Germany (17%). The age group of over 70-year-old hunters in particular showed a very high HEV antibody detection rate of 67%. The precise reason for this is currently unknown. The 46 wild pigs showed significant local differences in terms of detected HEV and HEV-specific antibodies. Depending on the place where they were shot, antibodies were found in between 22 % and 47 % of animals and 0 % to 33 % of the animals carried HEV. The virus was typically found in the liver and in one case in the musculature.

An analysis of the questionnaires showed: in one area with a very high level of HEV infection in wild boars, hunters who mostly wore gloves while eviscerating animals had an 88 % lower detection rate for HEV-specific antibodies than hunters who did not applied this safety measure.

Wearing gloves during evisceration and carving up wild pigs therefore provides effective protection against transmission of the hepatitis E virus. In general, it is important to ensure thorough hygiene when disembowelling hunted game even with a view to other pathogens. The detection of HEV in the liver and flesh of wild pigs also suggests that there is a possibility of virus transmission from wild boar-derived food. Meticulous kitchen hygiene and thorough heating of the wild pig meat and meat products provide the most effective protection against virus transmission via this pathway. The BfR has compiled various hygiene recommendations about handling game and game meat which can be found on the BfR website.

The study was published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases in October 2015: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2334/15/440.

About the BfR

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) is a scientific institution within the portfolio of the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) in Germany. It advises the Federal Government and Federal Laender on questions of food, chemical and product safety. The BfR conducts its own research on topics that are closely linked to its assessment tasks.

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