Greek health authorities are on alert following a mysterious spike in cases of acute hepatitis in children around Europe.
Cases of the illness that causes liver inflammation have been recorded in the UK, where authorities have been investigating 74 cases of hepatitis in children.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Wednesday that additional cases of hepatitis of unknown origin have been reported in Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Spain.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the EU’s health agency issued warnings to other countries to be on the alert and requested them to report any cases of unknown origin.
Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris said that no cases have been reported in Greece.
He expressed concern about the spike in cases in the UK where, as he said, at least three children between the ages of 3 and 5 have required liver transplantation.
He added that health authorities in Greece are on “high alert.”
What is hepatitis?
Hepatitis is inflammation of the liver, which is a vital organ for processing nutrients, filtering blood, and fighting infection.
Inflammation can affect the liver’s function, and the illness can vary in severity depending on the cause.
While some types of hepatitis are mild and don’t require treatment, other forms of the disease can become chronic and fatal.
What has caused the spike in cases?
Health experts are trying to determine the causes of the cases, as the usual viruses causing the illness have not been detected.
Conor Meehan, a Senior Lecturer in Microbiology at Nottingham Trent University says hepatitis in children is usually associated with viral infections. The most common of these are the five hepatitis viruses: hepatitis A, B, C, D and E. Other viruses, such as adenoviruses, can cause hepatitis, but this is rare.
“What is unusual about these cases in children is that none of the five hepatitis viruses have been detected in any of the patients. This rules out the most common cause of these symptoms, leaving public health authorities searching for answers,” Meehan writes at The Conversation.
If adenovirus is the cause of these cases, it could mean that a new variant of adenovirus has emerged that more easily causes hepatitis, he says.
Could COVID-19 be behind the spike in cases?
There have been suggestions that COVID-19 could be behind these cases of hepatitis, as SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in some of the children. Isolated cases of hepatitis have been reported in COVID-19 patients, but this is even rarer than autoimmune hepatitis and has mostly been observed in adults with severe COVID-19.
Most note-worthy is that none of the children diagnosed with hepatitis in the UK have received a COVID-19 vaccination, so there’s no basis to believe COVID-19 vaccines have anything to do with this spike.
Another possibility is that this is a new symptom resulting from the interaction between viruses (perhaps adenovirus and coronavirus both infecting the same child, for example). Alternatively, it could be caused by a totally different virus that hasn’t yet been detected, Meehan adds.
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