The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been investigating severe, unexplained cases of hepatitis in children across the country, which may all be linked to a mysterious outbreak worldwide. At least 228 cases as of May 1 have been reported worldwide.
The cases in the U.S. have led to hospitalization for most children, multiple liver transplants, and five deaths.
Hepatitis is not a common disease in children, and the World Health Organization is reporting that the children affected range between the ages of 1 month and 16 yearsTrusted Source. This is more worrisome because experts still do not have a clear picture of what is causing this condition.
While more research does still need to be done, experts have weighed in on how best to spot the signs of hepatitis in children.
What is hepatitis?
The term hepatitis means inflammation of the liver.
It can be caused by heavy alcohol use, toxins, certain medications, and some medical conditions. Viruses are also a common cause of hepatitis.
The most common hepatitis viruses we typically hear about are hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
Typically viral hepatitis is contracted through the blood or bodily fluids of a person with the disease.
But with many of these new cases of pediatric hepatitis, experts can find no clear cause of the hepatitis cases or links between the cases.
What is the possible cause of the hepatitis outbreak?
Authoriteis are still searching for the cause of these hepatitis cases but one potential link is an adenovirus infection. In many of the hepatitis cases, physicians found that the children’s blood work showed the presence of adenovirus infectionTrusted Source.
“Investigations are still underway. How it is spread, or the common vehicle, is still not clear. In any location, there is no contact between the children who have gotten sick,” said Dr. William Schaffner, Professor of Preventive Medicine, Health Policy, and Professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Schaffner said the only potential common link between the cases so far appears to be an adenovirus infection.
In a CDC telebriefingTrusted Source, authorities said they found half of the 109 children in the U.S., who had hepatitis, also tested positive for adenovirus.
According to the WHO, adenovirus has been detected in 74 cases worldwide. Adenoviruses typically cause a wide range of illnesses like fever, sore throat, common cold, flu, and other respiratory symptoms. It can also lead to gastroenteritis or pink eye.
“Adenoviruses can be transmitted through the air or through the fecal-oral route, which is often how gastrointestinal adenoviruses are spread,” said Dr. Adam Ratner, Director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at NYU Langone Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.
Hepatitis is not a common result of an adenovirus infection, but it has been documented in children with a compromised immune system.
What are the symptoms of hepatitis?
Initial symptoms of hepatitis are vague and could be attributed to other things.
They include nausea, vomiting, fever, loss of appetite, and vomiting. As hepatitis progresses, other symptoms include dark urine and light-colored stool. The more serious symptoms include jaundice, which is the yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
“As this inflammation of the liver becomes more prominent, then you get the most distinctive symptoms, like the whites of the eyes turn yellow and a yellowish cast on the skin,” Schaffner said. “It can be accompanied by light stools and dark urine. The symptoms of hepatitis are vague until it gets more serious.”
How worried should parents be about hepatitis in children?
These cases, while concerning, are still rare. Parents should not be overly concerned about their children socializing or attending school, according to experts.
Parents should contact their child’s pediatrician if they cannot keep fluids down or if any of their cold or flu-like symptoms do not get better. Parents should also alert their pediatrician if there are signs of dark urine, light-colored stool, or jaundice.
At this time, there is no link between the hepatitis outbreaks and Covid-19.
How can parents keep their kids protected from hepatitis?
Because the cause of hepatitis is still under investigation, it is difficult to say how best to prevent it. But experts believe that if it is because of the adenovirus, that typical cold and flu prevention would be the most helpful strategies.
“We make the usual recommendations — good hand hygiene, stay away from anyone who you think may be ill for other reasons, etc. Other than that, there is nothing specific we can say,” said Schaffner.