Number of UK children suffering from hepatitis rises to 145

The number of children in the UK suffering from severe hepatitis has risen to 145 as concerns mount about the mysterious surge in cases.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced an increase of 34 cases but said most children have recovered and no children have died. There has been no increase from the 10 children who have required a liver transplant, reported on Monday.

Scientists believe there could be a link to adenovirus infection, which has been detected in the majority of cases, but are continuing to investigate the cause. Hepatitis is not a common side-effect from adenovirus, which typically causes cold-like symptoms and nausea, so scientists are investigating whether a co-infection, including with Covid-19, or non-infectious causes such as food poisoning, drug or metal exposure, could be playing a role.

“We are also exploring whether increased susceptibility due to reduced exposure during the Covid pandemic could be playing a role, or if there has been a change in the genome of the adenovirus,” UKHSA said in a statement.

Dr Meera Chand, the agency’s director of clinical and emerging infections, said: “We know that this may be a concerning time for parents of young children. The likelihood of your child developing hepatitis is extremely low. However, we continue to remind parents to be alert to the signs of hepatitis – particularly jaundice, which is easiest to spot as a yellow tinge in the whites of the eyes – and contact your doctor if you are concerned.”

Prof Deirdre Kelly, a paediatric hepatologist at Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS trust and part of a group working with UKHSA to investigate the cases, said that the surge seemed likely to be related to the pandemic and that the group had found a medical report from 1924 describing an increase in child hepatitis after the 1918 influenza pandemic. “They also had a surge in hepatitis, which is fascinating,” Kelly said.

She added that the far higher numbers of cases seen in the UK compared with Europe was likely to be due to a better reporting system. The UK has centralised liver treatment centres, meaning that milder cases could be picked up quickly.

Chand advised parents to ensure that children follow normal hygiene measures including thorough handwashing. “As always, children experiencing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhoea should stay at home and not return to school or nursery until 48 hours after the symptoms have stopped,” she said.

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