Number of UK children suffering from hepatitis rises to more than 160

Health officials are continuing to investigate a sudden surge in cases of hepatitis or liver inflammation among young children in the UK. Credit: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

More than 160 children have now been identified with sudden onset hepatitis in the UK, as scientists continue to investigate the mysterious reason behind the surge in cases. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said an extra 18 cases were recorded between April 29 and May 3, bringing the UK total to 163.

None of the cases have been fatal, but 11 children have needed a liver transplant.

The World Health Organisation said earlier this week there were almost 300 probable cases of children with severe hepatitis detected in 20 countries worldwide.

What is hepatitis and how is it caused?

Hepatitis is a broad term which describes an inflammation of the liver.

Symptoms of the condition include dark urine, itchy skin, muscle and joint pain, loss of appetite and a high temperature.

It is usually caused by a viral infection - but also exposure to certain chemicals, alcohol, drugs and some genetic disorders.

Health officials are still investigating the cause of the increase in the severe liver condition but a common virus called adenovirus may be causing the surge following the pandemic, according to the UKHSA. Adenovirus is the most often detected virus in the samples that have been tested.

However, as it is not common to see hepatitis following adenovirus infection in previously well children, investigations are continuing into other factors which may be contributing, the UKHSA said. These include previous Covid infection or a change in the adenovirus genome itself.

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Dr Meera Chand, director of clinical and emerging infections at UKHSA, said: “It’s important that parents know the likelihood of their child developing hepatitis is extremely low. “However, we continue to remind everyone to be alert to the signs of hepatitis – particularly jaundice, look for a yellow tinge in the whites of the eyes – and contact your doctor if you are concerned. “Our investigations continue to suggest that there is an association with adenovirus and our studies are now testing this association rigorously.”

What should parents do? Public health officials have advised people to practice good hand and respiratory hygiene, and parents have been reminded to supervise thorough hand washing in younger children, to reduce the risk of transmitting adenovirus. Parents and carers should be alert to the signs of hepatitis including jaundice - skin with a yellow tinge which is most easily seen in the whites of the eyes. If a child develops any symptoms they should be kept away from school, and parents should seek advice from a GP.