One child has died, 17 others have required liver transplants and close to 200 children are being treated around the world due to a mysterious outbreak of hepatitis.

The majority of children are under the age of five with cases reported in children aged from one month to 16 years.

While one child has died, health authorities have not released information on the age of the child or country of origin.

According to the UK Health Security Agency, the median age of children is just three, and only “a small number of children over the age of ten are being investigated”.

Health authorities are now scrambling to figure out what is causing this spike and how we can protect our children from it.

What is Hepatitis?

According to WHO, hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver leading to a range of health problems, some of which can be fatal. It is generally caused by an infectious virus and there are five main strains – types A, B, C, D and E.

However, the new outbreak of hepatitis in children does not appear to be linked to ANY of the usual viruses that can cause the strains of hepatitis, leaving health experts stumped.

Where are the cases? 

Scarily, there have been 190 unexplained cases in children around the world including:

  • The United Kingdom and Ireland – This is where the outbreak was first reported earlier this month with 114 registered cases.
  • Several European nations – Including Spain, Israel, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, France, Romania and Belgium. 40 cases have been reported in the European Union and European Economic Area.
  • Canada and the USA  – The first reported cases started in Alabama, USA but have since spread across the country and into Canada.
  • Asia – Japan’s health ministry has recently reported a child 16 or younger had been hospitalised with acute hepatitis – severe inflammation of the liver – with an unknown origin. This is the first known case in Asia.

Is this linked to COVID-19?

ECDC director Andrea Ammon told reporters in a virtual briefing that one theory being considered is the COVID lockdowns may have weakened children’s immunity as they have not been exposed to viruses as much as children prior to lockdown.

At this stage, there is no link between the COVID-19 vaccination and the hepatitis outbreak as none of the confirmed cases in the UK had been vaccinated.

What is causing it? 

Experts instead think that the hepatitis outbreak is linked to infection with an adenovirus – a common cold virus.

Within the adenovirus family, there are several viruses that can cause flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms. In some instances, these viruses can cause infections of the lungs and in immunocompromised patients, and on rare occasions, cause hepatitis.

However, the fact that so many children are getting hepatitis is very worrying and has health authorities confused.

According to Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London,

Mild hepatitis is very common in children following a range of viral infections but what is being seen at the moment is quite different.”

They are suggesting that perhaps the adenovirus has mutated or that it could be working in tandem with another infection (possibly COVID-19).

According to WHO at least 20 of the children tested positive for the coronavirus while adenovirus had been detected in at least 74 cases. 

There are also theories that it has something to do with a toxin but this is less likely due to the geographical spread of the cases reported.

Hepatitis in children

Whatever is responsible for the hepatitis outbreak, it’s important that parents are aware of the signs and symptoms just in case. While there are no cases in Australia, we should be on alert:

Symptoms to look out for include:

  • Yellowing of the white part of the eyes or skin (jaundice)
  • Dark urine
  • Pale, grey-coloured faeces
  • Itchy skin
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Fever
  • Feeling and being sick
  • Feeling unusually tired all the time
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tummy pain

Patients may also report a yellowish discoloration of their sclera – the white of the eye – and/or the skin, dark-colored urine and light-colored stools.

Normal hygiene measures –  handwashing (including supervising children) and good thorough respiratory hygiene can help to reduce the spread of many common infections, including adenovirus.

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