At least 228 probable causes of hepatitis in children have been detected worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cases of sudden onset hepatitis in children aged 10 and under have been under investigation after a surge in cases was identified earlier this year.
The majority of hepatitis cases have been identified in the UK
Since January 2022, 145 cases of the liver condition have been confirmed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). In total, 108 are resident in England, 17 are in Scotland, 11 are in Wales and 9 are in Northern Ireland.
Of these cases, 10 children have received a liver transplant and no children have died. There are also a number of cases currently being investigated in children over the age of 10.
The rise in hepatitis cases in the UK led other countries to begin to look for the disease in children, and the WHO says a further 83 cases from 20 countries have now been identified outside of the UK.
The WHO has confirmed that one child has died and another 50 cases are also under investigation.
What is causing the rise in hepatitis cases in children?
The UKHSA says it is not yet clear what is causing the rise in cases, but suggests it may be linked to adenovirus infection.
However, health officials say it is not “typical” to see this pattern of symptoms from adenovirus, so they are also investigating other possible contributing factors, such as another infection (including Covid-19) or an environmental cause.
The Agency says it is also exploring whether increased susceptibility due to reduced exposure during the Covid-19 pandemic could be playing a role, or if there has been a change in the genome of the adenovirus.
Risk to children is still “extremely low”
Dr Meera Chand, Director of Clinical and Emerging Infections at UKHSA, said while this may be a “concerning time” for parents, cases are still extremely low and therefore so is the risk.
However, he urges parents to be aware of the signs of hepatitis which include:
- jaundice (yellowing of the white part of the eyes or skin)
- dark urine
- pale grey-coloured faeces
- itchy skin
- muscle and joint pain
- a high temperature
- feeling and being sick
- feeling unusually tired all the time
- loss of appetite
- tummy pain
He advises parents to contact a health professional if they are concerned, and adds that normal hygiene measures (such as handwashing) can help to reduce the risk of infection.
“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,” he said.