UK hepatitis outbreak in children spreads to Europe and US

·2-min read
Stock image of scientist using microscope (PA) (PA Wire)
Stock image of scientist using microscope (PA) (PA Wire)

An outbreak of hepatitis that was first detected in the UK has now spread to the US and Europe, health officials have said.

British authorities have detected at least 74 cases of the inflammatory liver condition among children since January.

In a statement on Tuesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said cases of hepatitis had been identified in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain, without specifying exactly how many cases were found. Nine cases have been found in children aged 1 to in Alabama in the US.

“Mild hepatitis is very common in children following a range of viral infections, but what is being seen at the moment is quite different,” said Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London.

Some of the cases in the UK have required specialist care at liver units and a few have needed a liver transplant.

The usual viruses that cause infectious hepatitis were not seen in the cases, and scientists and doctors are considering other possible sources, including Covid-19, other viruses and environmental factors.

However, Cooke is not convinced Covid-19 is responsible. British public health officials also ruled out any links to Covid-19 vaccines, saying none of the affected children was vaccinated.

“If the hepatitis was a result of Covid it would be surprising not to see it more widely distributed across the country given the high prevalence of (COVID-19) at the moment,” he told the Associated Press.

“At present, the exact cause of hepatitis in these children remains unknown,” the European CDC said.

UK scientists previously said one of the possible causes was adenoviruses, a family of common viruses usually responsible for conditions like pink eye, a sore throat, or diarrhoea.

US authorities said the nine children with acute hepatitis in Alabama tested positive for adenovirus.

Some doctors have noted that adenoviruses are so common in children that merely finding them in those sickened by hepatitis does not necessarily mean the viruses are responsible for the liver disease.

The World Health Organization noted that although there has been an increase in adenovirus in Britain, which is spreading at the same time as Covid, the potential role of those viruses in triggering hepatitis is unclear.

Some of the children have tested positive for coronavirus, but WHO said genetic analysis of the virus was needed to determine if there were any connections between the cases.

The UN health agency said that given the jump in cases in the past month and heightened surveillance, it was “very likely” more cases will be detected before the cause of the outbreak is identified.

Hepatitis symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, yellowing of the eyes and skin (jaundice), and a high temperature.

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