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Explained: What is the ‘mystery’ liver disease affecting children in the US and Europe?

Cases of this mysterious liver disease have been reported in Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands, besides the US and UK. No deaths have occurred yet.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: April 19, 2022 7:11:41 am
On April 6, the UK’s Health Security Agency stated that doctors and scientists were investigating about 74 cases of hepatitis (liver inflammation) in children since January 2022. (Representational Photo)

Health officials in countries, including the US and the United Kingdom, are investigating cases of a mysterious liver disease detected in children. We take a look at what the disease is all about and the possible causes of it.

Which places have reported cases of the mystery liver illness?

Cases of this mysterious liver disease have been reported in Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands, besides the US and UK. So far, no deaths have been reported.

On April 6, the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) stated that doctors and scientists were investigating about 74 cases of hepatitis (liver inflammation) in children since January 2022. The WHO says that all the hepatitis viruses (A, B, C, D and E) have been excluded as causes of the disease. It added that adenoviruses and SARS-CoV-2 were detected in some of these cases.

In the US, the state of Alabama has reported cases among nine children between the ages 1-6 years since October 2021.

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The WHO has said that some of these children required transfer to specialist units and six underwent liver transplants. So far, the WHO advises: “While some cases tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and/or adenovirus, genetic characterization of viruses should be undertaken to determine any potential associations between cases.”

What could be a possible cause of the mystery illness?

Among these cases, the usual viruses that cause infectious hepatitis (hepatitis A and E) were not detected. The UKHSA also said at the time that one of a number of potential causes of the mysterious disease could be a group of viruses called adenoviruses, which cause common respiratory illnesses such as the common cold.

Most people infected with an adenovirus recover from the illness without any major complications. However, rarely, hepatitis can be a rare complication resulting from the virus. Human to human transmission of adenoviruses is possible by touching contaminated surfaces and through the respiratory route.

Hepatitis, which affects the liver, can occur because of a number of reasons and can be life threatening if not treated. Its symptoms include dark urine, pale and grey-coloured stool, itchy skin, yellowing of the eyes and skin, high temperature, muscle and joint pain and loss of appetite among others.

Alabama’s health department said in a statement released Friday that the children presented themselves with symptoms of gastrointestinal illness and varying degrees of liver injury including liver failure. As per their analyses, there could be a possible association of the hepatitis with Adenovirus 41.

Science magazine endorsed the theory that the hepatitis is being caused by an adenovirus, since upto half of the children infected in the UK have tested positive for it. “But so far, the evidence is too thin to resolve the mystery, researchers and physicians say,” the magazine reported.

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