H5N1 virus

Food warning after rise in cases of hepatitis E infection

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2007, 12:00am


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The public has been warned to cook food thoroughly to prevent the spread of hepatitis E, as the number of cases of the disease has been rising over the past 10 years.

The Centre for Health Protection has reported that the incidence of the contagious disease rose from four cases in 1997 to 34 cases last year.

Pregnant women should be particularly cautious and pay extra care to food hygiene, the centre's controller, Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, warned in a radio programme yesterday.

He said the death rate among pregnant women from the virulent hepatitis E could be as high as one in five cases.

'Right now we have neither antibiotics nor vaccines to tackle the virus, it all depends on the patient's own immune system,' Dr Tsang said.

Like hepatitis A and B, the E virus is carried by contaminated food and water.

Early symptoms include poor appetite, tiredness and diarrhoea, which many people are likely to mistake as cold or flu symptoms.

Infectious diseases expert Lo Wing-lok said the increased mobility of people and generally warmer temperatures might be responsible for the increase in cases.

'Bacteria and viruses thrive in hot weather, and in recent years the temperature has kept rising; the chance of someone falling ill is certainly greater when the food contains abundant amounts of bacteria,' he said.

The number of food poisoning cases has also grown steadily in Hong Kong, from 1,900 cases 10 years ago to 4,095 cases last year.

Dr Tsang urged expectant mothers to avoid shellfish, while the public should cook food well and avoid cross-contamination of food. Raw meat should not be stored with cooked meat.

Meanwhile, a nine-month-old girl who contracted the H9N2 strain of bird flu earlier this month has recovered.

Dr Tsang said laboratory examinations found no mutation of the virus and the results of tests on the baby's family and other patients at the hospital were negative.

It was the fourth case in 10 years and Dr Tsang said the government had no plan to conduct medical tests for the H9 strain on incoming poultry.

'The strain is not only weaker than the H5 version but also widely exists in poultry, so it may not be necessary or technically viable to treat the virus like H5N1,' he said.