Background: In Europe, hepatitis E virus (HEV) infection is mainly a food-borne zoonosis, but it can also be transmitted by blood transfusion. It is usually a mild and self-limited infection. However, immunocompromised persons, who are also those more likely to undergo blood transfusions, may develop chronic hepatitis and often cirrhosis. Since this is a potential threat to blood safety, we aimed to investigate HEV prevalence in Italian blood donors.
Materials and methods: We used plasma donations collected during 2015-2016 by blood services (BS) scattered throughout the Italian regions and intended for the production of plasma-derived medicines. Plasma samples were tested for IgG and IgM anti-HEV and for HEV RNA using validated assays. Data concerning donor's age and sex, and the location of the BS were collected.
Results: A total of 10,011 plasma samples were tested. Overall IgG and IgM prevalence rates were 8.7 and 0.4%, respectively. No sample was HEV RNA-positive. IgG prevalence was significantly higher in males and in donors aged 44 years and over. IgG prevalence differed greatly according to region. Overall regional rates over 15% were found in Abruzzo and in Sardinia, and rates of 10-15% were found in Lazio, Umbria and the Marche. Considering IgG prevalence according to the province where the BS was located, rates over 30% were found in Sardinia and Abruzzo. Age, sex and donor's region of residence were independently associated with IgG positivity. BS location produced significant heterogeneity on prevalence rates within the regions.
Discussion: The detected IgG rate of 8.7% in this study represents one of the lowest seroprevalence rates reported among blood donors in Europe. Particularly high prevalence rates in some regions and provinces may be explained by local eating habits and/or intensive environmental HEV contamination. Before considering the introduction of HEV RNA screening for blood donations in Italy, further important issues should be addressed and prospective incidence and reliable cost-benefit studies are needed.