Scientists have warned consumers to thoroughly cook meat from pigs after finding the hepatitis E virus in pork sold in Cape Town.
Hepatitis E causes jaundice, loss of appetite and nausea. In rare cases it can cause acute liver failure, particularly in pregnant women and patients with a comprised immune system.
The virus is usually transmitted through drinking water contaminated with faeces, but scientists who bought 144 food samples from supermarkets and butcheries around Cape Town found it in two liver spreads.
Stephen Korsman, of the National Health Laboratory Service, said the spreads came from two different supermarket chains in 2014. They were among five samples of liver spread tested.
Reporting his findings in the August edition of the SA Medical Journal, Korsman said more than one in four Western Cape residents had hepatitis E antibodies, and the study had pointed to a “plausible infective source”.
The virus had been identified in pigs in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, he said, and was common in pigs in industrialised countries.
“The risk of contracting the virus by way of pork products is higher when consuming undercooked or raw [meat],” he said.
“Cooking at 71ºC for 20 minutes has been found to fully inactivate the virus.”
Korsman and colleagues from the University of Cape Town said there were other possible sources of hepatitis E that could explain the high level of antibodies in the Western Cape population.
“A possible reservoir not yet studied locally could be filter-feeding shellfish, as they feed on sewage entering the ocean. Such shellfish are regularly eaten in Cape Town,” said the report.
“Further potential sources of hepatitis E … may include seafood and raw vegetables.”