Hepatitis E virus in wild rabbits and European brown hares in Germany
Recently, a change of hepatitis E from being a typical travel-associated disease to an autochthonous zoonosis in Germany was observed. An increasing number of autochthonous infections with the hepatitis E Virus (HEV) have been recognized in developed countries. Venison from wild boar is already known to be a potential source of infection, if not prepared properly by the consumer. In Germany, certain wild animals are known to be a reservoir for HEV. However, current information is missing about European brown hares (Lepus europaeus) and wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Thus, a total of 833 hunting-harvested animals (European brown hares n = 669; wild rabbits n = 164) were tested for the occurrence of HEV RNA and HEV antibodies. For this, liver and blood specimens were taken after hunts in six German federal states. HEV antibodies were found by ELISA in 2.2% (624/14) of European brown hares, but no HEV RNA was detectable by nested real-time RT-PCR. In contrast, a seroprevalence of 37.3% (126/47) was observed for wild rabbits, and 17.1% (164/28) of the samples were HEV RNA positive. Genomic analysis revealed that these partial sequences clustered within the rabbit clade of HEV-3 genotype. In addition, one rabbit sequence segregated into subtype 3g of HEV-3. Highest seroprevalences for hares and rabbits were detected in the federal states of Bavaria and of Schleswig-Holstein, respectively. Comparing urban, rural and insular areas, the highest seroprevalence was shown for wild rabbits in rural areas and for European brown hares on the northern island Fehmarn. This study provides evidence that European brown hares and wild rabbits from Germany can be infected with HEV. The different prevalences indicate that wild rabbits are a potential reservoir for HEV in Germany, whereas European brown hares seem to be only of minor importance for the epidemiology of HEV.