A man in his 60s is suspected of having contracted hepatitis E from a blood transfusion he received during heart surgery at a Hokkaido hospital last year, Japanese Red Cross Society sources said Saturday.

If confirmed, it will be the first case in Japan of a hepatitis E infection from a blood transfusion.

The sources said, however, that the patient may have been infected before the surgery.

He had developed hepatitis symptoms but was allowed to leave the hospital after they abated a month later, they said.

The Japanese Red Cross Society checks for hepatitis B and hepatitis C in donated blood. They do not check for hepatitis A and hepatitis E, however, since these normally infect people through food and drink.

The finding prompted the Hokkaido Red Cross Blood Center to conduct an emergency examination of the blood donated by 18 people in Hokkaido. The hepatitis E virus was detected in blood donated by six of them.

The blood of the 18 donors had failed to pass safety checks for an enzyme that increases when liver cells are destroyed, as happens with hepatitis.

The Japanese Red Cross and the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry will jointly test 500 to 600 blood donors nationwide whose donated blood had failed to pass safety checks for possible hepatitis infection, said the sources.

According to the sources, the patient was given a blood transfusion with blood donated by 23 people at a hospital in Muroran, southern Hokkaido. The hepatitis E virus was detected in the blood donated by one of the donors.

The genetic makeup of the detected virus matched that of the hepatitis E virus found in the patient, they said, adding that the virus-tainted blood passed the test for the enzyme.

The donor displayed no subjective symptoms of hepatitis, the sources said.

Symptoms of hepatitis E include fever and jaundice, though many people infected exhibit no symptoms. Most patients usually recover in about a month with no serious liver damage, but the disease can develop into a full-blown, potentially fatal illness, especially in pregnant women.

Hepatitis E has been considered a disease usually found in developing countries. But it is not unknown in Japan, where four people died last year due to the virus.

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