Puzzling outbreak of liver disease in kids spreads to EU, US

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LONDON — Health officials say they have detected more cases of a mysterious liver disease in children that was first identified in Britain, with new infections spreading to Europe and the U.S.

Last week, British officials reported 74 cases of hepatitis, or liver inflammation, found in children since January. The usual viruses that cause infectious hepatitis were not seen in the cases, and scientists and doctors are considering other possible sources, including COVID-19, other viruses and environmental factors.

In a statement on Tuesday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said additional cases of hepatitis had been identified in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain, without specifying exactly how many cases were found. According to the statement, nine children with acute hepatitis were identified in Alabama by U.S. authorities. They ranged in age from 1-6 years old.

“Mild hepatitis is very common in children following a range of viral infections, but what is being seen at the moment is quite different,” said Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London. A few of these cases have had to be treated in specialist liver units, while others have needed liver transplants.

Cooke was not convinced COVID-19 was responsible.

“If the hepatitis was a result of COVID it would be surprising not to see it more widely distributed across the country given the high prevalence of (COVID-19) at the moment,” he said.

“At present, the exact cause of hepatitis in these children remains unknown,” the European CDC said.

U.K. Scientists previously suggested that adenoviruses were one possible cause. This is a group of viruses commonly responsible for symptoms like sore throat or pinkeye. The nine Alabama children who were diagnosed with acute liver disease in the United States tested positive for the adenovirus.

Some doctors have noted that adenoviruses are so common in children that merely finding them in those sickened by hepatitis does not necessarily mean the viruses are responsible for the liver disease.

British public health officials ruled out any links to COVID-19 vaccines, saying none of the affected children was vaccinated.

The World Health Organization noted that although there has been an increase in adenovirus in Britain, which is spreading at the same time as COVID-19, the potential role of those viruses in triggering hepatitis is unclear. Although some children tested positive for coronavirus in their cases, WHO stated that genetic testing of the virus would be necessary to confirm any connection between them.

It said no other links had been found between the children in the U.K. and none had recently traveled internationally. Laboratory tests are underway to find out if there is a chemical or toxins involved.

WHO said there were fewer than five possible cases in Ireland and three confirmed cases in Spain, in children aged 22 months to 13 years.

The U.N. health agency said that given the jump in cases in the past month and heightened surveillance, it was “very likely” more cases will be detected before the cause of the outbreak is identified.

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