Health officials are still trying to identify the cause of cases of acute and severe hepatitis that have infected scores of children in 16 countries, mainly in Europe.

Over 170 cases of acute severe hepatitis in children aged between 1 month and 16 years have been reported from 16 countries, 12 in Europe.  Most cases have been found in Britain.  Other infections have been reported from the United States, Canada, Israel, and Japan.

The World Health Organization reports 17 children have required liver transplantation and one child has died.  Hepatitis in children sometimes can lead to chronic liver disease and liver failure.

Philippa Easterbrook is a scientist at the WHO’s program of Global HIV, Hepatitis and Sexually Transmitted Infections.  She said the origin of these infections in children remains unknown.  She said investigations have shown that none of the children have the common viral causes of hepatitis A, B, C or E.

“The questionnaires have not identified any common exposure—be it to a toxin or a particular food and no strong travel history.  And importantly, very few of the children have received COVID vaccinations.  So, there does not appear to be a link with COVID vaccine,” she said.

Easterbrook says one line of inquiry is to see whether there is a possible link to adenovirus.  This is a common infection in children, which can cause respiratory illness, gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis and bladder infection.

She said a few cases of unexplained hepatitis in children occur every year in most countries.  She said scientists are trying to ascertain whether the current apparent infection rate is truly unusually high or just a result of better reporting.

“The suggestions are there is a clear significant increase above that background rate in several of the countries that have been able to report this data with some confidence.  But that is what we are trying to establish in the various countries now that we are working with to investigate those cases and establish whether this is the case,” said Easterbrook.

The WHO says toxicology, immunology, and other studies will continue in hospitals.   It notes the likelihood that more cases will be detected before the cause of this infection can be confirmed and before more control and prevention measures can be taken. 

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