Mysterious liver disease in children in the US and Europe

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Health officials in several countries are investigating mysterious cases of severe liver disease in children, which they believe may be related to a type of virus usually associated with colds.

The UK has been investigating at least 74 cases in which children have contracted hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, the World Health Organization said on Friday. Three similar cases are being investigated in Spain and a few in Ireland, the WHO said.

Meanwhile, US health officials say they are investigating nine similar cases. They were all in Alabama, but authorities say they are looking to see if there are more elsewhere.

“Given the increase in reported cases over the past month and enhanced case-finding activities, it is likely that more cases will be reported in the coming days,” WHO officials said in a statement.

The American children were between the ages of 1 and 6, and two required liver transplants. The European cases are in a similar age range, although some have been older, WHO officials said.

The WHO first became aware of the unusual illnesses earlier this month, when they learned of 10 children in Scotland with liver problems. One got sick in January and the other nine in March. They all became seriously ill and were diagnosed with hepatitis after being taken to hospital.

The liver processes nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infection. The infections caused symptoms such as jaundice, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Hepatitis can be life-threatening if left untreated.

Since then, British health officials have identified at least 64 more cases. None died, but six required liver transplants, the WHO said on Friday.

Laboratory tests have ruled out hepatitis viruses type A, B, C and E that usually cause this type of disease. Officials say they are not aware of international travel or other factors that could have put the children at risk.

But they noted that there has been a recent increase in the spread of adenoviruses.

There are dozens of adenoviruses, many associated with cold-like symptoms, fever, sore throat, and conjunctivitis. But some versions can trigger other problems, including inflammation in the stomach and intestines.

Adenoviruses have been linked to hepatitis in children before, but especially in children with weakened immune systems.

Some of the European children tested positive for adenovirus and some tested positive for COVID-19. But more laboratory work is needed to explore any potential associations with specific viruses, the WHO said.

Alabama health officials say they have been investigating an increase in hepatitis in children since November. In each case, the child tested positive for adenovirus. Officials are exploring a link to one version in particular, adenovirus 41, which is normally associated with intestinal inflammation.

None of the Alabama cases had underlying health conditions that seemed to put them at risk for liver disease, health officials said.

“Right now, adenovirus may be the cause of these, but researchers are still learning more, including ruling out more common causes of hepatitis,” the CDC said in a statement.

UK investigates puzzling rise in liver disease in children

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