Mysterious Child Hepatitis Outbreak Could Be Linked To Common Cold Virus

At least 169 children in 12 countries have developed severe hepatitis in an unexplained outbreak that researchers believe may be linked to a virus that usually causes mild cold symptoms.

A boy is vaccinated against hepatitis B in Merville, France.

BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

Key Facts

As of Thursday, the World Health Organization had recorded 169 cases of acute hepatitis worldwide among children aged between 1 month and 16 years, including 114 cases in the U.K.

Children affected in Alabama came from all over the state, had no significant underlying health conditions and were not connected in any obvious way, the Alabama Department of Public Health said.

About 10% of children diagnosed with the disease worldwide have required liver transplants, and at least one child has died, the WHO said.

The U.K. Health Security Agency (UKSHA) found that children who developed hepatitis did not test positive for hepatitis viruses, which usually cause the disease, but identified a possible link to adenovirus, a common pathogen that typically causes mild cold symptoms.

The outbreak is not linked to Covid-19 vaccination, and none of the confirmed hepatitis outbreak cases in the U.K. is known to have been vaccinated for Covid-19, UKSHA said.

Key Background
UKSHA first announced it had identified a possible pediatric hepatitis outbreak on April 6, after dozens of cases were detected among children under 10. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver that is often caused by viruses known as hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. The severity of the disease typically depends on which virus causes it—while hepatitis A infection usually lasts for weeks and does not cause permanent injury, hepatitis C is usually chronic and can cause cirrhosis, or permanent liver scarring. Proposed explanations for the outbreak range from the emergence of a new pathogen to exposure to an unknown hepatitis-causing toxin. It’s also possible that children’s immune systems, weakened after months of social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic, are now more vulnerable to diseases like hepatitis, Imperial College London liver researcher Simon Taylor-Robinson told Reuters. The CDC found that some U.S. cases in the current outbreak occurred in children who had adenovirus type 41, which usually causes symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting. However, adenovirus has not been linked to all cases in the current hepatitis outbreak, and is not known as a case of hepatitis in children without immune disorders, making its role in the outbreak uncertain, the CDC said.

Hepatitis symptoms include fever, fatigue, nausea, abdominal pain, dark-colored urine and joint pain, the CDC said. Adenovirus symptoms range from a sore throat to pneumonia, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.

Though the severity of recent pediatric hepatitis cases is concerning, the overall number of cases is still “very low,” European Association of the Study of the Liver public health committee chair Maria Buti told Reuters Tuesday.

Further Reading
“WHO: Mysterious Hepatitis Outbreak Has Led To One Child Dying, 17 Needing Liver Transplants” (Forbes)

“What’s Causing A Sudden Outbreak Of Hepatitis In Kids In Europe And The US?” (Forbes)

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