Health officials are urgently investigating a surge in hepatitis cases among young children – and a lack of exposure to a common virus during Covid restrictions could be behind it.
Since the start of the year, 111 children have required hospital care for liver inflammation (hepatitis), with the majority of cases occurring among children under the age of five. While 10 UK children have needed a liver transplant.
Dr. Meera Chand, director of clinical and emerging infections at the UK Heath Security Agency (UKHSA), says: “Information gathered through our investigations increasingly suggests that this rise in sudden onset hepatitis in children is linked to adenovirus infection. However, we are thoroughly investigating other potential causes.”
Adenovirus is a group of viruses that usually cause mild illnesses including stomach upsets and colds. They were the most common pathogen detected in 75% of the cases.
The UKHSA have suggested a lack of exposure to these viruses during the pandemic may have caused more susceptibility to them now.
Here’s everything you need to know about hepatitis.
What is hepatitis?
“Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver. There are various causes of hepatitis, including viral infections and alcohol consumption,” says Dr. Stephanie Ooi, GP at MyHealthcare Clinic in London.
“Some cases of hepatitis will resolve with no ongoing issues, however, there are certain cases that can be longer-lasting, and cause more serious damage to the liver, and affect liver function.”
According to the NHS, hepatitis E – caused by the hepatitis E virus – is the most common cause of short-term (acute) hepatitis in the UK.
What are the symptoms?
According to the NHS, short-term (acute) hepatitis often has no noticeable symptoms, so you may not realise you have it.
If you do experience symptoms, Ooi says: “You may notice a high temperature, jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin), fever, generally feeling unwell, dark-coloured urine and pale-coloured stool. In addition you may have tummy pain, have a reduced appetite and itchy skin.”
The NHS lists muscle and joint pain and feeling unusually tired all the time as further symptoms.
What should parents and carers do if they think a child has hepatitis?
The number of cases of hepatitis in children is increasing, which is understandably causing some concern amongst parents,” says Ooi.
“The best thing to do is to see your GP if you notice any of the above symptoms, and are worried about hepatitis.
“Some of the symptoms can present in other conditions, so it does not necessarily mean your child has hepatitis – but jaundice in particular needs to be urgently highlighted to a doctor.”
Chand adds: “Normal hygiene measures such as thorough handwashing (including supervising children) and good thorough respiratory hygiene, help to reduce the spread of many common infections, including adenovirus.
“Children experiencing symptoms of a gastrointestinal infection including vomiting and diarrhoea should stay at home and not return to school or nursery until 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped.”
What are the treatment options?
Ooi says: “The treatment will depend on what is causing the hepatitis, so this will vary. Your child will be assessed and monitored and have any further tests that need to be done.
“Treatment will also be based on symptoms. i.e. giving adequate pain relief if they are in pain or feeling uncomfortable.”
In very serious cases, sufferers might need a liver transplant.