Should donor blood be screened for hepatitis E?

“One in almost every 3,000 blood donors in England could be infected with hepatitis E, according to a new study,” The Times reports.

Hepatitis E normally causes only a mild infection that usually clears up without the need for treatment. It can occasionally lead to more serious complications in more vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system.

A new study estimated the prevalence of hepatitis E virus in blood donors in England and whether the virus is transmitted to blood recipients.

The prevalence estimate, based on just under a quarter of a million blood donations, was found to be one infection in every 2,848 donors (0.04%). This was higher than expected.

When researchers investigated what happened to 49 of the 60 people receiving the infected blood, they found it did not cause significant illness and recipients were able to clear the virus from their bodies naturally in most cases.

This opens up debate about whether screening donated blood for hepatitis E is necessary to prevent infections – currently only the B and C types of hepatitis are screened for.

In an ideal world, blood donations would be screened for all known blood-borne organisms. But in the real world, screening is expensive and time consuming, and is often not accurate enough to be useful.

The rationale for not screening is because hepatitis E infections are generally considered a mild and short-term infection, unlike the other forms of hepatitis, which are screened for.

The current study does not resolve this screening debate, but it does provide useful new information to inform it.

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