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Meat Products Identified as Primary Source of Hepatitis E Outbreak in Finland

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An investigation led by the Finnish Food Authority (Ruokavirasto) and the National Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) has revealed a concerning correlation between hepatitis E infections and the consumption of contaminated meat products in Finland.

Recent findings indicate that a hepatitis E-positive meat product, originating from a domestic manufacturer, is likely responsible for the majority of cases reported earlier this year. The strain of the hepatitis E virus detected in sausages from the said manufacturer closely matches samples obtained from individuals affected by the outbreak that occurred between January and March 2024, resulting in over 120 reported cases across various regions of Finland.

Of particular concern, at least 42 individuals required hospitalization, with the median age of affected patients being 64 years, and a significant majority (70 percent) being male. While one fatality has been reported, the precise role of hepatitis E in the individual’s demise remains unclear.

Prompted by these developments, Kotivara, the implicated company, initiated a recall of six products sold since early November 2023, subsequently expanding the recall to include additional products and dates. In a statement, the company affirmed its commitment to collaborating closely with authorities to investigate the source of the contaminated meat material and implement necessary corrective measures swiftly.

Further investigations by THL revealed a notable association between hepatitis E infections and the consumption of Kotivara products, as reported by infected individuals compared to a randomly selected control group from the population. Additionally, analysis of hepatitis E virus samples from infected persons identified genotypes HEV-3f and HEV-3e as predominant.

The transmission of hepatitis E to meat products, such as mettwurst or salami, likely occurs through raw virus material. Although the specific raw material responsible for the contamination remains unidentified, it is acknowledged that the current production methods are insufficient to inactivate the virus, which is only destroyed through thorough cooking. Hepatitis E virus is commonly found in pigs, wild boars, and deer.

While Finland typically records between 20 to 60 hepatitis E cases annually, the recent outbreak underscores the need for continued vigilance and investigation by Ruokavirasto, THL, and local food control authorities. This situation has also drawn attention from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which noted heightened hepatitis E infection rates in several European countries, including Germany, Belgium, and the Czech Republic.

Hepatitis E infection, caused by the hepatitis E virus (HEV), manifests as a liver disease with symptoms including fatigue, poor appetite, stomach pain, nausea, and jaundice. Notably, some individuals, particularly young children, may exhibit no symptoms.

As investigations persist, stakeholders remain focused on implementing preventive measures and raising awareness to mitigate the risk of further transmission and safeguard public health.

Source: Food Safety News

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