Hepatitis E virus (HEV) is an enteric RNA virus from the family Hepeviridae with five genotypes (genotypes 1–4 and 7) known to infect humans. HEV infection is known to have a zoonotic swine origin in industrialized countries. The role of pigs and wild boars as major reservoirs for human infection is today well‐established; however, the list of new animal reservoirs is ever‐expanding as new HEV strains are continuously being found in a broad host range. The recent detection of HEV in sheep stools brings concerns on the possibility of HEV transmission from these animals to humans, particularly in those occupationally exposed. The present work investigated the potential occupational risk of HEV infection in shepherds and sheep milk cheesemakers—workers occupationally exposed to ovine (WOEOs; N = 96)—from a region of the Centre of Portugal (‘Serra da Estrela’) based on the differences of anti‐HEV IgG seroprevalence rates between these professionals and the general population (N = 192). The presence of HEV‐specific antibodies in sheep (N = 90) from the same region was also evaluated. The HEV seroprevalence in WOEOs (29.3%) was found to be significantly higher (p = .0198) when compared with population controls (16.1%) which suggests an increased risk for HEV infection in these workers. HEV‐specific antibodies were also found in 16.6% of the studied sheep showing that HEV circulates in these animals. Further studies are needed to confirm the zoonotic potential of sheep HEV.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.