Medical mystery: Kids contracting hepatitis with no known cause, liver damage in US, Europe

Global health officials are scrambling to determine the root cause of hepatitis outbreaks across Europe and in one U.S. state that have resulted in nearly 100 severe liver infections among children within the past six months.

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The World Health Organization on Friday confirmed the clusters of pediatric liver inflammation, noting that no deaths have been associated with the infections but confirming eight liver transplants have been required to date.

Hepatitis is the inflammation of the liver, typically caused by a virus, which can affect its ability to process nutrients and filter the blood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The recent pediatric symptoms reported included jaundice, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain, the WHO confirmed.

Laboratory testing has ruled out the hepatitis type A, B, C and E viruses that usually cause such illnesses, and WHO officials said they are not aware of international travel or other factors that might have put the children at risk.

According to CBS News, the WHO was notified April 5 of 10 acute hepatitis cases without a known cause in children under the age of 10 in central Scotland. Three days later, the number of pediatric cases in the United Kingdom jumped to 74. In addition, three confirmed cases have also been reported in children aged 22 months to 13 years old in Spain, and fewer than five cases have been reported in Ireland.

Dr. Meera Chand, the director of clinical and emerging infections at the U.K. Health Security Agency, told The Guardian that officials are working across the four nations to “investigate a wide range of possible factors which may be causing children to be admitted to hospital with liver inflammation known as hepatitis.”

Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Public Health on Friday confirmed nine cases – two of which required liver transplants – of acute hepatitis without a known cause in children between 1 and 6 years old since October 2021. Health officials there are exploring a link to one particular version, adenovirus 41, that’s normally associated with gut inflammation.

“At this time adenovirus may be the cause for these, but investigators are still learning more — including ruling out the more common causes of hepatitis,” the CDC said in a statement.

The Alabama kids, as well as some of the European children, also tested positive for adenovirus, which is typically associated with cold-like symptoms, fever, sore throat and pink eye but rarely causes severe hepatitis in healthy people, according to the CDC.

There are dozens of adenoviruses, however, and some versions can trigger other problems, including inflammation in the stomach and intestines.

Both the CDC and WHO are investigating, expect an increase in the number of cases and are considering both adenovirus and coronavirus as early potential catalysts for the infections, CBS News reported.

“It’s important to note that not all diseases are reported at the state or national level – and in these cases, CDC utilizes different methods of surveillance, including close collaboration with clinicians and health departments to identify and detect unusual patterns or clusters of illness,” CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund told the network on Friday.

U.K. officials stressed, however, that “no link” between the hepatitis cases and the COVID-19 vaccine have been detected because none of the children affected by hepatitis had received a jab, The Guardian reported.

“Normal hygiene measures such as good handwashing, including supervising children, and respiratory hygiene, help to reduce the spread of many of the infections that we are investigating,” Chand told the British news outlet, adding, “We are also calling on parents and guardians to be alert to the signs of hepatitis, including jaundice, and to contact a healthcare professional if they are concerned.”

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.