The World Health Organization (WHO) and the EU’s health agency have issued warnings to other countries to be on the alert following a mysterious spike in cases of severe liver disease in children in the UK.
The UK’s public health agencies are investigating 74 cases of hepatitis, an illness causing liver inflammation, in children since January.
Health experts are investigating the potential causes, as the usual viruses causing the illness have not been detected in these cases.
The UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said on April 12 that 49 the confirmed cases are in England, 13 are in Scotland and the remainder are in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said most cases involved children ages 2 to 5.
It said some children had suffered acute liver failure and a “small number have required liver transplantation.”
It said there were no travel links between the affected children.
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, which is a vital organ for processing nutrients, filtering blood and fighting infection.
Inflammation can affect the liver’s function, and the illness can vary in severity depending on the cause.
While some types of hepatitis are mild and don’t require treatment, other forms of the disease can become chronic and be fatal.
Hepatitis is often contracted through the hepatitis virus, of which there are five main types: A, B, C, D and E.
However, these viruses were not found in the UK cases, and scientists and doctors are now considering other possible causes, including COVID-19, other viral infections and environmental factors.
The UKHSA said “there is no link to the COVID-19 vaccine”, adding that none of the confirmed cases in the UK have been vaccinated.
It said one of a number of potential causes is adenoviruses.
“Adenoviruses are a family of common viruses that usually cause a range of mild illnesses and most people recover without complications,” it said.
The ECDC said it is sharing information about the UK cases to “increase awareness among clinicians taking care of children, to determine whether there are any similar cases in other countries.”
The agency said doctors should be on the lookout for children with jaundice and symptoms including vomiting and stomach problems.
It is encouraging them to report cases of acute hepatitis in children up to 16 years old, in which hepatitis A to E has been excluded, to their national health agencies.
ECDC is also recommending EU member states to share information about any such suspected cases.
WHO Europe said following notification from the UK about the cases, less than five cases (confirmed or possible) had been reported in Ireland, and investigations into these are ongoing.
There have also been three confirmed cases of acute hepatitis of unknown cause in children in Spain, which are currently under investigation.